Northern Star Farm in Trappe, Pa., Revives the Long-Lost Thrill of the Horse-Drawn Sleigh Ride
Until 2010, Matthew Wismer and his 230-acres of preserved farmland were specifically cow-centric, centered on dairy production.
But he had a fantasy: whisking passengers across the frozen countryside in an old-fashioned horse-drawn sleigh.
So, three years ago, he took his ambition by the reins and purchased two draft horses (a Belgian named Tommy and a Percheron named Pretty Boy) and a finely crafted vehicle with sure-footed runners and burgundy velour seats.
"What I realized," Wismer says, "Is that what I thought of as a fantasy of mine turned out to be the fantasy of a lot of people."
As weather permits, Wismer provides the full sleigh-ride experience, in all its Currier and Ives glory.
The magnificent horses, with shaggy coats that are impervious to the cold of an 18° morning, are hitched to the forest-green sled. Tommy is particularly eager to get going. He stamps his foot in anticipation, leaving prints in the snow that are approximately the diameter of a dinner plate. Pretty Boy is ready, too, and his slight movements cause the drape of German bells around his back to ring merrily.
Their passengers this day include Peggy Vazana, who has made quite the commute to enjoy what she calls a "bucket-list" ride. Vazana and her sister arrived in Trappe from Elkton, Md., but her point of origin for the trip is West Palm Beach, Fla. "I have always wanted to do this," she bubbles. "I did a Google search for rides in Maryland, Delaware, Allentown, the Poconos, and came up with nothing. Finally, I hit on Northern Star Farm. The only other places were all the way up in Vermont."
Wismer says that riders' goal of fulfilling a long-term dream is compelling. "Older people come to finally cross off one of their bucket-list items. Young people come to experience something they've always heard about but doubted was still possible to do." Wismer finds it very satisfying make wishes come true. "I see a lot of ill people, cancer patients and such, who want to come and do this while they still can. It becomes an awesome responsibility," he says, "and so I take it very seriously."
The significance of what he does leads Wismer to attend to every detail. Behind the scenes, he's dressed in nondescript coveralls, but once he takes the driver's seat, he has changed into a dramatic wool cape and a jaunty top hat. And even the blankets that provide protection from the bitter temperatures are legit. "These are based on a sewing technique that goes back to the Victorian age," Wismer describes, displaying the coverings. "They were designed to replace the bearskins and buffalo hides that provided warmth to sleigh passengers prior to their use." Historical accuracy is important, so the colors, patterns and material are as period as is possible.
Peggy Vazana (left), who commuted from West Palm Beach, Fla., to experience one of her "bucket-list" items, poses with Northern Star Farm owner Matthew Wismer and her sister.
At last, the sleigh is full of its giddy riders. Tommy and Pretty Boy are set. Wismer takes the reins, and with a whistle and a shake, the horses start crunching through the snow.
Perhaps it's merely the drone of nearby traffic.
Or the wind playing tricks.
But it's possible to imagine singing floating over the crests of white.
Northern Star Farms is just west of Collegeville, Pa. Sleigh rides are available for groups of 2-3 and, using a roomier sled, as many as 12. Rides, which must be reserved in advance, are generally 45 minutes long. More than three inches of snow is ideal; therefore, bookings can require a combination of flexibility and patience for a traditional glide over frosty fields. Should Mother Nature prove non-cooperative, the sleds are fitted with wheels and driven through nearby neighborhoods.
Once your ride is through, keep the fantasy alive and make an overnight out of it. Take your apple-jack cheeks and cheery smiles to a local hotel for a hot meal and a warm bed. Our list of recommendations, including several hot deals that are part of our Cabin Fever Reliever program, is here.