Looking Back to a song we sing each year — you know the one — “Over the River and Through the Woods to Grandma’s house we go, The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh through the white and drifting snow. Oh how the wind does blow, it stings the toes and bites the nose as over the ground we go. The dogs do bark and the children hark as we go jingling by, Oh hear the bells ring, ‘Ting a ling,’ Hurrah for Christmas day!”
Let’s learn a little more about the song and sleigh bells.
Lydia Maria Child was born in February 1802 in Medford, Mass., a little town known for sleighing and rum distilling. She grew up and became a schoolteacher until she married a Boston Lawyer in 1828. In her lifetime, she wrote 52 books, but now she is not remembered for all of that, but for the poem she wrote in 1844 called ‘Over the River and Through the Wood.’ No one knows when it got set to music, but it became popular during the Civil War. By the turn of the century, it was a classroom standard.
But what of the sleigh bells? They were decorative, sometimes they were silver or gold in color and had a practical function. They were made of sheet metal, bent into a spherical shape and a small ball bearing or short metal rod placed inside to create the jingle sound.
William Barton opened the first US Sleigh Bell company in East Hampton, Conn., in 1810. East Hampton eventually became known as “Belltown” because it produced so many bells. In the town of Boston, N.Y., there was a Bell Factory that was operated by the Yaw family. It was the largest bell factory in the United States, making cow and sheep bells. I could not find where they made sleigh bells, but they sure could have. It was still in operation and on the atlas map of 1880.
While we all enjoy hearing sleigh bells, they also warn people that there was a sleigh or wagon coming along, and on a foggy night, this could save lives. Sleighs can be difficult to stop without notice and in many places, bells were required for the protection of those on the road.
Here in Springville, even in the early days, you could get the sleigh bells, lap robes made of wolf, buffalo or wool to wear across your laps. Sometimes a heated brick or small heater would be on the sleigh to help keep your feet warm. Of course scarves, jackets, gloves, hats, the harness for the team of horses — unless it was a one-horse sleigh, then only one was needed — could be purchased easily.
In the 1870s, A.D. Jones located on Main Street was the place to go for all such needs. By 1910, Bement and Brooks had all of these items and more. There would be sleighing parties and caroling done from the sleigh as they went house to house or town to town.
Sleighs could be purchased from most blacksmith’s shops. A sleigh is essentially a cold season alternative to a carriage or wagon. They came in open or closed or Bobsleighs, all sizes. Some had wonderful designs on them, and others were plain. One thing they all had in common was the long narrow runners that they used to slide across the surface such as snow or ice. Kids sleighs were popular as well, being pulled by the family dog!
So were the sleigh bells used just during the snowy season on sleighs? Bernice Bensley had a use for sleigh bells. He hung them in his cherry tree and when the birds would come to eat his cherries. He had a string running from his kitchen door to the tree, as the birds came. He would ring the bells to scare them off. He was even thinking of applying for a patent.
As Christmas season is upon us, what traditions will you pass on to the next generation? Will it be the stories from the past of Christmas past, of family and the adventures they had? Give your child the present of the family history, either verbally or in written form. Look at the old family albums and remember your grandparents and the stories they shared with you, of Christmas tree decorations, of the wonderful food that was on the table — maybe even pass the recipes down in a cookbook form. Spending time with the family and with your friends is the best present of all.
Stop by the Lucy Bensley Center on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and see what is on our shelves and archives. Bring down your family history and share with us, the photos and stories we can copies and store on our shelves for future visitors. You can call us at (716) 592-0094 or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can hear some great music from some wonderful folks on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Concord Mercantile/Heritage Building located at 17 Franklin St. It really is the most wonderful time of the year!