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Sleigh bells ringin'

Wally Rodewald gives free sleigh rides at the Washington Square Mall on most December Saturdays1 / 6
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Wally Rodewald and his granddaughter, Jenna Tollefson of Richwood, take the reins as the sleigh rides go round and round the mall from noon to 3 p.m. every Saturday in December up until Christmas.3 / 6
sleigh rides become a family tradition for many in the lakes area, as hundreds hop on for the free ride every year.4 / 6
Rodewald's granddaughter, Jenna Tollefson follows in her families footsteps as a horse lover,5 / 6
while his wife, Charlotte helps to spread the Christmas cheer year after year.6 / 6

Wally Rodewald sits at his kitchen table, sifting through a big pile of homemade thank-you notes and pictures that local kids have drawn him.

"When they send all this stuff, isn't it worth doing something?" Rodewald said, smiling proudly.

The 76-year-old Detroit Lakes man gets this sort of fan mail a lot, as he is the guy who has, for years, been providing warm Christmas memories to area children.

He's the guy you see every weekend in December (except the last) giving free trolley rides at the Washington Square Mall from noon to 3 p.m. He's been doing it for 20 years.

Round and round the block he goes with his team of big, black Percheron horses leading the way, and a home-made trolley full of smiling kids and parents bringing up the rear.

He cannot even begin to count the many times he's made that trip around the block, as the three hours he's out there is split up between the five minutes of actual ride-times and the pit stops in between when the kids get on and off.

"They love to pet the horses," said Rodewald, "and you can just see the curiosity in their little faces when they do that."

King and Jen are the stars of the show -- each weighing in at around a ton.

"I just love their personalities," said Rodewald of the majestic breed that towers above a normal horse. "They're so gentle, and let me tell you, they'll work their butts off for you, too."

Rodewald, who also uses his horses for haying and a little logging, says they listen to commands so well that it sometimes makes for a long, but amusing ride.

"Just ask Santa Claus how well they listen," smiles Rodewald, as he tells the story of a Pelican Rapids lights parade he was once in where he pulled Santa.

The horses kept stopping suddenly many times throughout the parade, and Rodewald couldn't figure out why.

"So then all of a sudden I hear Santa on the back going, 'Merry Christmas ... Ho, Ho Ho,' and that's why they'd stop. When Santa said, 'Ho, Ho, Ho,'" he laughed. "I said, 'Santa, you're the one who's been stopping my horses!'"

Rodewald says that's also happened when they hit a bump and one of the kids yells, 'Whoa.'

This horse-loving, kid-loving retiree has one story after another to tell of his times on rides.

He's done countless rides for parades, churches, weddings, funerals, nursing homes and schools, pulling a sleigh, an antique school bus, a trolley or a covered wagon -- whatever fits the event.

Sometimes he charges a fee; sometimes he doesn't, depending on what it is.

The rides at the mall are sponsored by the Detroit Lakes Chamber of Commerce.

"When I only have a free will donation, people seem to pay me more than what I'd ever ask for anyway, so why ask?" said Rodewald.

Everybody seems to call good old Wally when there's a need for a team of horses and some old-fashioned charm.

"They all know I'm here, I guess," he laughs.

But although that laugh sounds like a mischievous 15-year-old boy, Rodewald is starting to feel all of his 76 years.

"My health is letting me down," said Rodewald. "I get so stiff and my shoulders hurt -- I have a hard time harnessing the horses."

"And he just can't take the cold anymore," added his wife, Charlotte, whose lack of love for horses is made up for by her love for Wally.

"I help when he needs me to," she said.

Help is exactly what Wally tries to get now, especially from younger horse owners.

The problem is, working with teams of horses is a skill that's become increasingly rare.

"I learned it from my parents when I was a kid," said Rodewald, who grew up on a dairy farm north of Callaway. "Before we had a tractor, I'd work with the horses doing all the haying and everything."

Rodewald has been trying to get some of his buddies from the Midwest Minnesota Harness Club to take over for him now and then.

"But they've got jobs and they can't always do everything," said Rodewald, who says it was the Harness Club that started the trolley rides years ago.

He wonders if the future of these historical rides will continue on with them.

"It's just been a wonderful thing to be able to do something like this for the younger generation," said Rodewald, looking back at his colored thank you cards. "Yep, this is all I need."