A Look Back in History: Snow Bells of the PA Dutch Country, the holiday sound that always lingers in the air at this time of year

Bells

As the winter season is blanketed with deep snow, one can almost hear the sleigh bells of yesterday when farmers who lived in the countryside had to resort to hitching up their horses to early American sleighs. Complete with sleigh bells around horses’ necks to navigate safely over hill and dale with jingle bells sounding their merry song. This was so pedestrians and people can be forewarned of their immediate presence on the public roads.

It’s a holiday sound that always lingers in the air at this time of year. I still have a huge sleigh bell set that once was one around my horses as the pranced around the road staunchly making musical noises with their huge brass bells, as they proclaimed their right away in the snowy Wonderland. But since I also had Conestoga wagons on the farm, I usually had a set of six Conestoga bell hoops that were worn on the hame shoulders of a traditional six horse team of horses. This was the typical routine used by Colonial Wagoneers who broadcasted their presence on frontier highways, making sure that these harmonious brass bells would tell other Teamsters of the fact that they were hauling a large Conestoga wagon.

Bells were a safety precaution used by Teamsters on the horses to assure other vehicles of the presence, and the fact that a six horse team was pulling a huge Conestoga wagon. Thus, they should make room for a wide load! However, light sleighs and buggies had shaft bells attached to their wooden harness poles, which rang out as a precaution in a frontier world without few stop lights and stop signs. But no bells were as joyous as the bell hoops on the backs of six horse teams of local Conestoga wagons as they brought store supplies from the port of Philadelphia to our pioneer general stores.

Therefore, no holiday winter season was complete without the clandestine bells of Christmas among the PA Dutch people. Thus, as a former Teamster, in our huge walk-in fireplace of the Kutztown town crier’s house, hanging on the 18th century fireplace crane, we have several original Conestoga Bell hoops hanging with a very early string of sleigh bells that are a legacy of our PA Deitsch ancestry. This is a salute to the American ingenuity of our ancestors, and the nostalgic remembrance of natives whose bells rang loud and clear to this very day.

Even atop our rear kitchen door hangs a set of sleigh bells, should an unwanted intruder enter the house unannounced. They chime anyone’s presence! However, the Town Crier of Kutztown surely had a hand bell with which he proclaimed the safety of the community as he reached midnight, walking along Main Street. But the Conestoga bells of early six horse teams were of various sizes, so that when they were driven on the King’s Highway of yesterday, they were harmonious and loud to alert all other horsemen of there right away in snow or spring time. And these majestic work horses were the envy of any trade route in the nation.

Richard H. Shaner is director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.

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