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'Christmas miracle at the mall': Free sleigh rides in DL interrupted by spooked horse, no injuries result

Free sleigh rides every Saturday afternoon during the holiday season have been a tradition at the Washington Square Mall dating back well over a decade, bringing Christmas cheer and smiles to the faces of hundreds of children and their families each year.

No injuries have been incurred by either horse or human participants — a statistic that still stands, thanks to what sleigh driver Charlie Gross is calling "a Christmas miracle at the mall."

Last Saturday, Dec. 9, the sleigh rides started out just as uneventfully as they had the previous two weekends — but then the younger and less experienced of the two horses harnessed to the sleigh (actually, a horse-drawn trolley) accidentally got spooked and took off down the street toward Highway 10.

The horse dragged both his older four-legged partner and the — thankfully unoccupied — trolley along with him, and while Gross tried to bring them to a stop, he lost his grip on the harness and fell down. By the time he was able to regain his footing, the horses and trolley had rounded a corner and were out of his sight.

"Then, I heard a crash," Gross said. He heard from someone on the street that one of the horses was lying down, but by the time he reached the scene of the crash, he only saw the trolley.

"It was hung up on a steel pole," he said.

The impact had shattered the wooden yoke that the horses were attached to via harness, and both animals had taken off. The older, experienced horse, named Dewey, had simply trotted back to the mall parking lot, "because he knew that was where he was supposed to be," Gross said.

Someone was able to get Dewey tethered to a pole temporarily, while Gross's sleigh ride partner, Wally Rodewald, took off in a car driven by Jeff Leighton to try to track down the wayward horse, named Sonny. Meanwhile, Gross had spotted Sonny on the other side of Highway 10 and tried to pursue him, on foot, down along the railroad tracks.

"I lost him in the swamp," Gross said, but Sonny was found a short time later, hanging out on the MnDOT grounds, where volunteer helpers were able to temporarily secure him inside one of the buildings until Gross could round both him and Dewey up and take them home, along with the damaged trolley.

"Fortunately, no one was hurt," Gross said — neither man, nor horse. "It was like a miracle — a Christmas miracle."

The worst part of the whole ordeal, Gross said, was that he felt bad to disappoint all the people who were waiting for their free sleigh ride that afternoon.

Fortunately, however, Wally Rodewald will be bringing his miniature horses and sleigh to the mall this Saturday, Dec. 16 to offer free rides from noon to 3 p.m., Gross added — and the Washington Square Mall will also be playing host to a visit from Santa's Reindeer — yes, they are real, live reindeer — from noon to 3 p.m. in the mall parking lot. There is no cost to come view the reindeer, or enjoy a sleigh ride. Also, inside the mall, there will be kids' craft activities as well as Photos & Wishes with Santa. Call the Chamber of Commerce office at 218-847-9202 for details about any of Saturday's activities.

Gross also noted that for those who are unable to come to the mall on Saturday, the Humane Society of the Lakes would be hosting its 6th Annual Sleigh Ride Fundraiser on Christmas Eve, Sunday, Dec. 24, from 1 to 4 p.m. at JF Stables, located at 21168 Klein Road, Detroit Lakes. Come enjoy sleigh rides, pony rides, buggy rides, a bonfire with s'mores, Christmas cookies, beverages, and refreshments; you can also bring your own sled to play on the hills. Admission is $10 for adults — or you can bring one item from the Humane Society's wish list (visit and click on "Donations" for details).

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 17 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454