Stephens’ “Book of the Farm” (1840) says “Winter is the especial season of man – our own season. It is the intellectual season during which the spirit of man enables him most to triumphantly display his superiority over the beasts each day that perish.” In winter, the countryman plays a conqueror who sets forth each day to battle the elements, and winning, returns to the rewards of his harvests. It’s a daily game, beyond the ken of the city-dweller whose comings and goings lack the flavor of make-believe.
The coming of winter in the old days was heralded by a “banking-up season,” when the north sides of houses and barns were stacked with proper insulation. Corn stalks, hay, leaves, or sawdust shouldered the base of the farmhouse against winter’s blast; cow dung did the job at the barn.
The first of December was Sled Day wherever winter and snow were synonymous; that was the day when sleds of all sorts were readied and sleigh bells were made to shine. Just over sixty years ago there were real sounds to winter: steel-shod runners squeaked over the packed snow and the almost constant music of sleigh bells filled the crisp air everywhere. Winter was a season of bells.
Time was when you could recognize a neighbor’s approach by the sound of his sleigh bells, even tell which neighbor it was. Some farmers made up their own sets of bells and others preferred to use inherited sets. For those who wished to buy, however, there were Swiss Pole chimes, Mikado chimes, and King Henry chimes; the Dexter Body Strap of twenty-four bells was a popular buy. At first, sleigh bells were made from two half-globes of metal soldered together, but one-piece bells were later cast and sold separately, ready for fastening to harness. A matched set cost about $1.50.
The reason for using bells on a sleigh was not only for merriment but primarily for safety. A sleigh was a silent vehicle and a fast one, which its driver often found the greatest difficulty in stopping. Furthermore, everyone wore ear muffs or some other sort of ear-covering in the early days, so that winter pedestrians were practically deaf. Just as lights and horns are now required on the highway, bells were once a “must” for all winter traffic.
“The Cracker Barrel”
by Eric Sloane
(Funk & Wagnalls, 1967)