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An iconic Gen X snow sled makes a comeback

Bob Confer, President of Confer Plastics, holds his original blue sled (at right) that his family's plastics company in North Tonawanda manufactured for Marx Toys in the 1970's along with a new sled copied from the old one the company has tolled up to remanufacture and sell this fall. (photo by Max Schulte)
Max Schulte
Bob Confer, president of Confer Plastics in North Tonawanda, has revived production of a toboggan that was popular with youngsters in the 1970s and '80s. Here, he holds the sled he had as a boy, left, and the near identical new version.

It was the hottest day of the summer, but in a corner of a plastics factory near the Niagara River, just a few miles from the Canadian border, men and women were working for the winter.

Above them, a stream of blue hot plastic the consistency of Play-Doh poured from a pipe like soft-serve ice cream into a metal casing that molded it into a child’s toboggan.

After the sled took shape, a worker guided it to a cooling table, where he used a knife to slice off excess plastic with the finesse of a surgeon before. He then placed the sled in a box and waited for the next one to drop in three minutes flat.

The factory, Confer Plastics in North Tonawanda, made 160,000 of these sleds for the toy firm Louis Marx and Co. throughout the 1970s before that business went bankrupt in 1980, and production of the sled was halted.

For Bob Confer, the 48-year-old president of Confer Plastics, the sled is his “Rosebud” — and he has revived production of it on more than a hunch that others of his generation feel the same way about it.

“We get inquiries, probably six to 12 every single winter, from people of my age, which would be Generation X, and also from Boomers who say, ‘I want that sled because I grew up with it, I loved it, and I want to share it with my kids and grandkids,’” Confer said.

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The sled was once a seasonal staple in the Northeast and Midwest, where it was sold by big retailers like JC Penney, Montgomery Ward, and Sears under the forgettable name “Sno-Toboggan.”

A JC Penney catalog ad for the Sno-Toboggan from the 1970s. The sled retailed for $4.66.
Photo provided by Confer Plastics
A JC Penney catalog ad for the Sno-Toboggan from the 1970s. The sled retailed for $4.66.

For many people who grew up riding it, though, there was nothing forgettable about it.

“That sled would give you the thrill of a lifetime,” said Chuck Terbot, a 56-year-old engineer from suburban Buffalo. He said he got his Sno-Toboggan after the legendary blizzard of 1977, and still has it.

“That sled was the most agile, fastest thing out there in its day, and it still may very well be,” Terbot said.

Like Terbot, Confer still has his Sno-Toboggan from his childhood. In preparation for reviving production of the sled, he had the design of his digitized.

“Mine has survived the test of time, and the nice thing about making them today is now I have it for my kids,” Confer said. “I had looked at mine in recent years only as a museum piece. . . . I didn’t want it damaged.”

The toboggan coming off the line at Confer Plastics now is almost a carbon copy of the original. It still measures 39 inches in length and 16 inches in width and its handles, rope holes, and grooves are all in the same places.

The only notable difference is a small carve out in the mold for a required warning label. The sleds of the 1970s didn’t have those. Somehow, riders of that era survived.

Ric Rheaume was one of them. He recalled he and his sister barreling down hills on their Sno-Toboggans near their childhood home in Dartmouth, Massachusetts.

“Both my sister and I have great memories and love of these sleds,” he said.

Rheaume, 45, loved the sled so much that he stole his sister’s when his went missing and kept it all these years. A few years ago, he contacted Confer Plastics to ask if they still made the sled because he wanted his young daughters to have their own.

Confer remembered the inquiry when he revived the product, and recently shipped Rheaume two sleds fresh off the assembly line at no charge.

“When I told (my sister) . . . ‘Hey, they sent me two versions of the new sled,” she said, ‘Does that mean I get mine back?’” Rheaume said.

A photo hangs in Bob Confer's office of him with his dad, Doug, and grandfather, Ray, who started Confer Plastics in North Tonawanda. Ray Confer designed the iconic blue sled for the Marx Toy company in the 1970's. Bob is remanufacturing the sled for the family's 50th anniversary in business. (photo by Max Schulte)
Max Schulte
A photo in Bob Confer's office at Confer Plastics of him with his father, Doug, and grandfather, Ray, who started the company in North Tonawanda in 1973.

Confer is the third generation of his family to run the company, which was started by his grandfather, Ray Confer, in 1973, and later overseen by his father, Doug.

Bringing one of Confer Plastics’ most beloved products back to the market is part celebration of the company’s 50th anniversary and part play on nostalgia.

Confer said the sled will be sold as “The Retro Racer” and be available on Amazon by the fall for between $40 to $50. In the 1970s, the sled retailed for $4.66.

Bob Confer, President of Confer Plastics, holds a new blue sled at his family's plastics company in North Tonawanda. His grandfather originally designed and manufactured the sled for Marx Toys. Bob and his family decided to bring the sled back to help celebrate the companies 50th anniversary.(photo by Max Schulte)
Max Schulte
Bob Confer, president of Confer Plastics, displays a new "Retro Racer" sled that came off the line at his factory in North Tonawanda. His grandfather, Ray, manufactured  the sled for Marx Toys in the 1970s. Confer revived production as a play on nostalgia and to celebrate his company's 50th anniversary.

“People might think that maybe we’re a little bit crazy” reviving a sled from a half-century ago, Confer said. “But it’s good to be crazy, especially when you’re dealing with nostalgia and people’s love for it.

“Because if there’s love then, and love now, we want to make love for the future,” Confer said. “I look at it as making smiles and making memories.”

David Andreatta is investigations editor. He joined the WXXI family in 2019 after 11 years with the Democrat and Chronicle, where he was a news columnist and investigative reporter known for covering a range of topics, from the deadly serious to the cheeky.