This story originally aired on Jan. 5, 2013.
If it snows in your hometown and you’re over the age of 35 or so, chances are the name Flexible Flyer takes you on a fast, fun trip down a snowy memory lane. The legendary sled went downhill – in the business sense – for a time, but today the Flexible Flyer brand is thriving in the hands of a family that spent generations competing against it.
The Classic Steel-Runner Sled
After a snowstorm, head to the nearest sledding hill and you’ll see a lot of plastic and foam rubber as inflatable tubes, snow boogie boards and flat sleds in bright neon colors glide over white snow. But not that long ago, wooden sleds with steel runners were king.
1960 was the year Hank Morton joined his family’s business in South Paris, Maine, but by then they’d been making sleds for nearly a century.
“I think we had six different lengths. All the same thing, but six different lengths of sled. But you’ve got to understand [that] in 1960 they were much less expensive, too. You could buy a small sled for as little as $10 and a 48-inch sled for $20 or $30. It was a different ballgame.”
Morton’s grandfather built the stately white house that is now home to the company’s offices. Today, it’s called Paricon, but for decades the original business was known as the Paris Manufacturing Company.
“Everything you could make from wood they made. Household furniture, sleds, toboggans, skis and [they] operated a plant through the late 1800s and the early 1900s up to 1925 or so.”
Paris Manufacturing had as many as 300 employees then and made many sleds, but one product stood out.
“For years they manufactured the Speedaway sled in substantial numbers,” Morton said. “They made as many as 400,000 sleds a year. That name has dropped out of public sight.”
The ‘Ford and Chevy’ Of Sleds
Paul Cote is the owner of Pa’s Antique Attic in Oxford, Maine. He collects and sells sleds, snowshoes, toy carts and other products that were once manufactured in this part of the state.
“Flexible Flyer and Paris Manufacturing were the Ford and Chevy of [the] sled market really,” Cote said. “Flexible Flyer was owned by [S.L.] Allen [Company] and they manufactured a lot of farm implements and that sort of thing. The sled market was kind of a sideline initially.
“Of course, then they got very big into it and they became one of the major sled manufacturers in the country. They were ardent competitors. They competed for decades.”
The knotty pine-paneled walls of Cote’s large office are lined with antiques. One long shelf holds about 20 sleds dating back to the late 1800s, each of them ornately decorated.
“They’re all hand-painted, all gold leaf. I mean, they’re just fabulous pieces of art. And these were $60 dollars … a dozen,” Cote said with a chuckle. “To give you some idea of today’s market, I paid $7000 for [one sled].”
According to Cote, as the demand for sleds grew, the art became simpler and was eventually reduced to logos, but the big change in sledding came when the S.L. Allen Company of Philadelphia patented the first Flexible Flyer in 1889.
“[Flexible Flyer] is the only brand in our industry that’s recognized by the consumers … it’s iconic.”
S.L. Allen kept manufacturing Flexible Flyers until the late 1960s when the company was sold. After that the most famous sled in America slid all over the country. It was manufactured for a time in Ohio and later in Illinois and Mississippi, but as the Flexible Flyer brand was being sold and resold, kids were discovering new ways to speed downhill.
“Since I’ve joined the business [in the mid-1990s], it’s gone through three or four revolutions of different types of materials used to make sleds,” Tom Morton said. Tom and his brother Ted are Hank’s sons and business partners.
A Sudden Turn
Five generations in, not much about sledding takes the Mortons by surprise. But in 2005, their business got an unexpected boost when the company holding the Flexible Flyer brand went bankrupt and offered to sell them the winter products rights. Soon Flexible Flyer was back in expert hands.
Now 77, Hank is quick to acknowledge the power of his long-time rival.
“It’s the only brand in our industry that’s recognized by the consumers. To use a well-used word, it’s iconic.”
Today in stores across the country, Paricon markets plastic, foam and inflatable products bearing Flexible Flyer’s famous Eagle logo. And yes, they still sell wooden sleds with red steel rails – a 60-inch model will run you about $110 – although they’re a small part of the business.
Just up the hill from Paricon’s offices, the company’s warehouse sits where Paris Manufacturing’s factory once stood. Today, none of the products are made in Maine. The steel-rail sleds and others are manufactured in China, but many plastic sleds are made in the U.S. and Canada. Tom Morton takes satisfaction in knowing the Flexible Flyer brand will live on.
“I don’t think the consumer knew anything about Flexible Flyer’s financial woes,” he said. “I’m glad to have the marriage of our family and the Flexible Flyer brand. There’s a lot of history with both of us, the name and the family, being in sleds. It’s a good joining of forces.”
In much of the Northeast, New Year’s Day 2013 was a sledder’s dream: cold and clear with two-day old snow already packed down and slick. At Amory Playground in Brookline, Mass., Anita Blyth and her 10- and 11-year-old daughters were among the dozens of people on the hill. Blyth rode steel-runner sleds during her childhood in England.
“They were terrible because ours used to rust over the summer and then in the winter when we tried to go on them, they didn’t work so well,” Blyth said, laughing.
But she still has a soft spot for them.
“You know, we still have an old sledge that we keep in our old garage, definitely for nostalgia value,” Blyth said. Asked when the old sled was last put into action, Blyth laughed again. “About 25 years ago.”
Now Blyth and her daughters swear by a purple, hard plastic sled. Time and again, mother and daughters screamed, squealed, and laughed as they hurtled down the slope.
Modern sleds may look a little different, but the spirit of the original Flexible Flyer remains the same.
Follow Doug Tribou on Twitter: @DougTribou