Emigsville’s American Acme’s Royal Plane sled: ‘the real sled for ‘reg’lar fellers’
American Acme Co.’s name has been associated with Emigsville, in Manchester Township, Pa., since 1927, including an attachment to the Emigsville Band. Also of interest: 50-year Emigsville construction company’s closure: ‘It was a bittersweet day for all of us’ and In 1997, Emigsville’s mighty oak fell and Emigsville’s Web site tells tales of community’s past.
A query about 19th-century fire engines made in Manchester Township’s Acme Wagon Works serves as a reminder about another piece of correspondence.
That one was a letter addressed to the Emigsville company, then known as American Acme Co., and it applauded the York County-made Royal Plane sled.
Here’s his letter and a York Daily Record story (12/17/99) about the Emigsville sled-maker and woodworking company, tied to a local exhibit:
“Dear Sir: You asked me to write you a line to tell you first how I liked my Royal Plane sled. Well I like it very much. I let one boy take it and another boy got in his way and would not get out of his way so he knocked him crazy. Another would not get out of his way so he whirled him around & got the record good work, wasn’t it. I got the record all the time. There hasn’t been much snow but in the last few days there’s been about two feet of snow. It snowed all one day and night and half of another day and it a little on another day. It has the biggest snow storm in forty two years in Detroit. Well I will have to close.
Yours truly, James Rohrer”
This letter to American Acme Co. in Emigsville, printed precisely as it was written by James Rohrer of Grass Lake, Mich., on Jan. 15, 1927, shows just how important it was to have the fastest sled on the hill.
According to a company advertisement circa 1925, a Royal Plane was “The Spirit of the Hill.” Made of white ash, the sled had a nickel-plated spring steel bumper and steered “as easy as a bicycle.” It was “the real sled for ‘reg’lar fellers.’ Made to stand the bumps and mix ups and always first at the bottom.”
A Royal Plane, like the one Rohrer writes about, is on display at the Industrial Museum, 217 W. Princess St., through February. The sled is part of an exhibit of sleds made by American Toy and Novelty Works, which later became American Acme Co., from the 1920s to the 1960s.
Most of the sleds in the exhibit are on loan from Jeff Sipling, a Spring Grove collector. Sipling owns 150 sleds, 45 of which are from American Toy and American Acme.
The Royal Plane on display, however, was donated to the museum by 74-year-old Don Lentz of York. Lentz’ father was a contractor and worked at American Acme to help him make ends meet when times were tough.
“My dad got it for me when he was working there in the early 1930s during the Great Depression,” Lentz said. “It was way too big for me so I used to pull it around with a rope. I couldn’t even lift it. I was only about 6.”
Lentz eventually grew into the sled and, in fact, he “never needed another one.” He fondly recalls sledding down Cow Hill off East Berlin Road.
Flying over bumps.
Landing on rumps.
These are the things that Lentz remembers. These are the things he cherishes.
A love of sleds
When Sipling is asked why he collects sleds, “Rosebud” comes to mind. In the opening scene of the 1941 classic film “Citizen Kane,” newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane utters this dying word.
The film centers around a reporter’s quest to find out what “Rosebud” meant. Only in the last scene, when we see a red sled with “Rosebud” painted on it engulfed in flames, do we realize that Kane’s only true love was the sled his mother had given him as a child.
For Sipling, sleds are a link to his childhood, a happy time when life was less complicated.
“There’s a bond there,” he said. “It’s something that you remember in your younger life. You connect to the point where you start acquiring.”
Sipling remembers running candle wax over his runners to make his sled go faster.
He remembers putting waxed paper between his sock and the inside of his boot to help keep his feet warm and dry.
He remembers the roads being blocked off so he and his friends could go sledding and not have to worry about traffic.
He remembers when he didn’t mind if he put on a few extra pounds because the extra weight meant his sled would go faster.
He remembers hooking his feet into the front of the steering bar on the sled behind him and making a giant train to go down the hill.
He remembers – and he collects.
Of all the sleds in Sipling’s collection, his favorites are those that were made locally. “My heart is with American Toy and American Acme,” he said.
Casper Oermann, a German immigrant, opened American Toy and Novelty Works in 1917. A prominent builder and contractor, his company made cider mills, berry presses and boys’ sleds. Casper died in 1923, and his son, Carl, took over the company. Under Carl’s leadership, the business on West Poplar Street flourished.
In 1927, American Toy and Novelty Works merged with Acme Wagon Works Inc. of Emigsville and started doing business in Emigsville as American Acme Co.
According to a 1927 newspaper article, the new company sold more than 150,000 sleds that year. Over time, the company expanded its production to include beach, lawn and porch furniture, play gyms, rocking horses and an extensive line of juvenile furniture.
Carl’s daughter, 81-year-old Anna Koval, remembers how driven her father was.
“He was a hard-working man who didn’t believe in vacations,” she said.
She remembers his thriftiness.
“He would park blocks away from Central Market so he wouldn’t have to put a nickel in the meter.”
She remembers his concern for safety.
“When a child got hurt, he took that to heart. That’s when he started to curve the sled runners.”
And, she remembers the love he had for those who worked for him.
“Even during the Depression, he paid them out of his pocket. He would not let his employees go hungry.”
During its heyday, the company supplied sleds to department and hardware stores in York.
“For the bigger department stores, the sleds would be given different names,” Koval said.
There was the Royal Sky Plane: “Supreme for steering, beauty and action.”
The Sky Plane: “A sled that any child will be proud to own.”
The Rocket Plane: “The sled with eye appeal.”
The Monoplane: “A sled to meet the requirements of the speed demon.”
The Speedplane: “The high speed sled.”
And many others.
“The names that they used were in most cases related to speed,” Sipling said. “You wanted to have the fastest sled on the hill. Companies wanted the bragging rights.”
On April 1, 1950, a devastating fire gutted part of the factory. According to a newspaper article, the fire caused $600,000 in damage.
“The fire started up in the cotton bin, where they stored the cotton to stuff cushions for lawn furniture,” Koval said. “My father suspected that the accident was caused by someone who was smoking in the cotton bin while taking a break, but it was never proven.”
Koval said the mill room was saved so the company could continue with some of its operations. Months later, full production resumed in time for holiday sales.
“We had to say prayers that it would snow before Christmas so we could get rid of the sleds,” Koval said. “If we didn’t sell them before Christmas, we were in trouble.”
In the early ’60s, the company’s sled sales took a hit. As Koval tells it, her father borrowed money and made sleds during the summer months in anticipation of Christmas sales.
But something went wrong.
American Acme was underbid. A company, Koval doesn’t remember which one, said it could make the sleds cheaper. The other company got the sales and her father was stuck with a warehouse full of sleds, sleds that he expected to sell to major department stores like Sears.
“We lost a lot of business that year,” Koval said. “The department stores gave the orders to somebody else. We eventually got rid of those sleds, but it took time.”
That’s when her father began to coast away from sled production and focus on his other lines.
“Dad was angry. He said, ‘That’s it. No more.’ I’m not going to do business like that.’ ”
The introduction of slick plastic disks that skimmed along on even the slightest snowfall also hurt sales.
In 1967, Carl died, and his son, William, ran the business until he died in 1984. By that time, the company was mostly making butcher block tables.
“We finished the work we had promised to do, and that was the end of that,” Koval said.
Looking at the sleds in Sipling’s collection is like looking at fine Stradivariuses. The wood has aged beautifully, and the names still stand out on the decks.
As you study the sleds from the different time periods, you’ll notice changes.
The runners, once straight, were eventually turned up and then, later, rejoined to the frame for safety reasons.
The earlier sleds were made of white ash and the later ones of maple. You can see how the wood grains differ.
The deck boards were thicker, wider and closer together in the earlier sleds, and they were more heavily braced.
Varnish was used on the earlier sleds and orange shellac on the later ones.
“This did two things,” Sipling said. “The drying time for processing was faster, and the orange shellac gave the sled the appearance of being made of a more ex pensive wood.”
You’ll see sleds with spring bumpers.
You’ll see sleds with rubber hand grips.
You’ll see sleds that take you back to a particular hill at a particular time, and you’ll remember.
A smile will sneak up on you and, for a brief moment, you’re sledding down the hill. Snow is flying up in your face. You’re squinting so it doesn’t get in your eyes. You’re shrieking. You’re spinning. Wipe out!
Story night in Emigsville. Details: emigsville.org.
Photo courtesy of Manchester Township Historical Society and emigsville.org.