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The Toboggan: History, passion, tradition

The Toboggan: History, passion, tradition

The Toboggan: History, passion, tradition

Not unlike yodelling, which was used as a means of communication in the mountains, the toboggan was an essential means of rural transport. These days, the toboggan is a beloved piece of sports equipment, the origin of which can be traced back to the nobility and a popular diversion for the growing middle class.

The storied history of tobogganing in the Alps really took off with the English and it was all downhill from there. And yet before the toboggan became a beloved cultural icon of the Bregenzerwald, it was first a new product rolled out by wainwrights whose livelihoods were under threat. The Johler brothers recount their success story of keeping an old tradition alive.

Tobogganing is totally in and nowhere is this more apparent than the Bregenzerwald. These days, there are well-maintained natural toboggan runs in almost every community, e.g., Alberschwende, Sulzberg, Bezau, Bizau, Au, Mellau or Warth. Typically, these thrilling tracks are located in close proximity to the ski lifts, feature an inn serving food and drink and are floodlight in the evening. We, the Johler Brothers, know them all like the back of our hands (and for good reason!): For more than a hundred years, our family has produced toboggans in our wainwright’s shop. So for us, going tobogganing is first and foremost a question of quality control for the products we craft. Like many other enthusiastic tobogganing fans, experiencing nature, the thrill of the wind during a quick descent, and the sense of community when tobogganing with others are top priorities. Our latest outing was in Bezau, which features a natural toboggan run that can be reached quickly and easily via the Bezau cable car. The track is approx. 3 km and drops 440 metres from Baumgarten to the Sonderdach. The view, which extends all the way to Lake Constance area when the weather is clear, is like a shot of courage before the descent. Before heading down, we split up into two teams: a family group for the children and a sporting group for the adults. In the adult group, speed is the name of the game, but safety is the top priority. You brake with your feet, so good shoes are a must. Steering is performed with hands and lead (which is why we recommend warm winter clothes). Safely navigating the slopes means paying close attention to the track ahead, which is why mutual consideration on the track is a must. Naturally, the quality of the toboggan is of great importance for a successful ride. Toboggans can be rented from the cable cars and inns, but it’s still worth buying your own. In our workshop, we repair toboggans first purchased back in the 1960s. Whenever we asked to refurbish an old model, there is usually a lot of talk about the past. And this is also where our story of our unique Bregenzerwald toboggans begins.

Tobogganing like the nobility

Grand sleigh rides have been the privilege of the European nobility for centuries. Things changed at the end of the 18th century, however, when toboggans were adopted by city dwellers as a leisure activity. But there was a second population group that was important for the development of the toboggan: the farmers. For centuries, the settlement of the Alpine region posed numerous challenges: Wood, hay, milk and many other things had to be moved laboriously and over long distances. This was much easier in winter. For transport in the snow, local craftsmen made heavy ‘horn’ sleds as well as simple toboggans. Modern toboggans profited from both of these early prototypes.

The toboggan as we know it today first became popular with the advent of winter tourism around 1890. Guests from the big cities, at first mainly from England, sought rustic and authentic experiences in the Alps – and, of course, sport! The first competitive tobogganing race took place on 12 March 1883 between Davos and Klosters. From that moment forward, tobogganing quickly became a tourist attraction. In the many races that followed, at first only Swiss toboggans, so called “Davos sledges,” were permitted.

In Austria, tobogganing was mainly practised in Tyrol and Styria, but also in Vorarlberg. From the turn of the century onwards, the technique of tobogganing was further improved. In 1908, a detailed instruction manual entitled “How do I learn to toboggan?” was published. As a result of the races, the design of the toboggans quickly changed as well. The “Davos sledges” already had curved runners and wooden slats for the seat. For the new “Halltal Toboggan” from Tyrol, an even stronger bending of the runners and a criss-cross jute covering for the seat became characteristic. It was first and foremost the wainwrights who drove these technical advances forward. For centuries, they had conceived and built vehicles and means of transport. With the advent of the railway and then, after the First World War, the automobile, their craft fell into a lasting crisis. As a consequence, many wainwrights tried to transition to the construction of skis or toboggans. As a result, they developed ever newer, faster and more beautiful toboggan models. In 1908, our grandfather Christian Johler also started producing toboggans and skis in Alberschwende. Before that time, he had trained as a wainwright in Balzers, Liechtenstein, where he also had the opportunity to see his first “Davos sledge.” This design served as a model for his early prototypes.

The first toboggans in the Bregenzerwald

From the very beginning, Alberschwende was the centre of toboggan production in the Bregenzerwald. The Bregenzerwaldbahn railway, opened in 1902, nearly brought passenger and freight traffic on the Schwarzachtobelstrasse road to a standstill. This endangered the livelihoods of wainwrights, blacksmiths and saddle makers along the road. Soon, however, several wainwrights in the community started to produce toboggans, thus improving their economic prospects for some time going forward.

However, the golden age of toboggan production in Alberschwende didn’t actually begin until the late 1950s – in our case it was when our father Arthur took over the company. Winter tourism was rapidly gaining momentum at that time and the toboggan became a popular piece of sports equipment, as evidenced by photos of the range of products available at that time, which we display in our offices.

From early autumn and throughout the winter, several employees in the wainwright’s shop produced countless toboggans of high quality craftsmanship. These were then sent throughout the Lake Constance area, but also to South Tyrol and Trentino. From the 1970s onwards, wooden toboggans were subject to considerable competition from plastic sledges. After the untimely death of our father in 1982, we at Gebrüder Johler OG have done our best to react such challenges as a family-operated business. We remain successful to this day.

Our philosophy from the outset remains “Tradition and innovation in wood.” Each of the Johler brothers has a 9-5 day job: Edmund is managing director of a production company for lamps in Tettnang, Germany. Stefan (our brother-in-law) worked in Wolfurt’s local government until his retirement. Werner works as Vice-President Engineering at a global company near Zurich. And I, the author of this article, who has close ties to his home town and is always permitted a column in the Bregenzerwald travel magazine, have been teaching empirical cultural studies at the University of Tübingen for many years.

Every year we all return to our ageing workshop in Alberschwende to purchase and saw ash wood, bend the runners in summer, make poles and blocks, and to assemble the toboggans, which are upholstered and fitted with runners in autumn. Every winter, sales take place at our home in Alberschwende, Gschwend 341. Now running this business in the third generation, we have consciously decided to continue wainwrighting as a family business. As a result, both tradition and experience form the foundation of our toboggan production. And of course sustainability is just as important to us as adhering to regional economic cycles: The ash wood required for the production of the toboggans is sourced only from local forests. It is felled at the right time and air-dried for several months. The linseed oil used as moisture protection and the jute bands used for the criss-cross upholstery are equally environmentally friendly. The steps we take and the work we perform together as a family are factors that make our toboggans so special.

It is with great pride that we continue our craft at the entrance to the Bregenzerwald. On the day of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary on December 8, the Christmas market will be held at the village square in Alberschwende. Under the thousand-year-old lime tree in front of the church, good food and drink are served and all kinds of handicraft products are on sale, including the Alberschwende toboggan. Come and visit us sometime. I would be happy to tell you more stories about the toboggan and its construction. Pick up one of our toboggans and feel the difference that our wooden sporting sports equipment makes. Maybe you’ll take one home with you, or better yet, maybe to the nearest toboggan run.

Issue: Winter 2020-21 Bregenzerwald Travel Magazine
Author: Reinhard Johler