The other day, while researching a story that had absolutely nothing to do with deer, I discovered this marvelous ad for deer hair sweat pads. It made me sweat with curiosity.
Was it an idle boast, or was this truly the best-equipped harness shop in northern Wisconsin? Either way, it probably didn’t have much competition within a two-day ride. Still, in 1906 the area would have still boasted far more harness shops than auto mechanics. Most residents of Hayward and the surrounding area had yet to lay eyes on their first automobile.
For a modern reader, the ad raises many questions. With daily use, how long did harnesses last before they needed to be repaired—and then finally replaced altogether? How much of a market was there for harnesses, decorative trimmings, whips, and lap robes? Over the years that followed, how long would that market remain strong? And most of all… What’s up with the deer hair sweat pads?
Sweat pads placed between a draft horse’s shoulders and its leather collar were once a key piece of transportation technology, and in 1891 a patent dispute over an innovative sweat pad design went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Although today’s market is a bit smaller, traditionalists still prefer sweat pads filled with deer hair felt. Even modern synthetics have a tough time beating deer hair’s combination of softness, absorbency, and springy, cushy resiliency.
What gives deer hair sweat pads these unique properties? Hollow hairs. In early autumn deer shed their summer coats in favor of a thicker winter coat made of highly insulative hollow hairs. After the previous year’s hunting season, the hairs on many northern Wisconsin deer may have ended up as stuffing in organic, locally sourced sweat pads manufactured in the back room of the Hayward Harness Shop.
Farmers usually owned multiple pads for each horse; that way they could swap out the soggy ones at least daily. (Over time, these pads are said to acquire a distinctive odor vaguely resembling that of wet dogs.) To maintain a collar’s fit as horses gained and lost weight throughout the seasons, farmers also used an assortment of pads in different thicknesses.
In 1906, however, many of Edward Suckau’s northern Wisconsin customers would have been loggers, not farmers. All winter, crews used draft horses to pull sledges piled high with massive white pine logs. From where they fell, logs were hauled to the banks of the nearest river. The next spring, loggers floated them downstream to distant sawmills. (Back then, logrolling was not a recreational pursuit.) A vast region stretching across northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan was already becoming known as “the big cutover.”
If you’d like your very own deer hair sweat pad, they’re available out there on the internet right now. Prices range from around $24.00 to $60.00, depending on size and thickness. In contrast, the Sears Roebuck catalog once listed the “Lumberman’s Extra Heavy and Wide Sweat Collar” in a variety of sizes for $5.50 per dozen.
As for prices at the Hayward Harness Shop, well, we should have called sooner. From Ed’s phone number, we can tell he was an early adopter who lived in a small town. Rather conveniently, we’d only need to remember two digits.
© 2015 Al Cambronne