In the course of reporting for my newspaper, in February 2006 I had the opportunity to visit and interview the folks at North Yarmouth Maine’s Skyline Farm. The historic farm is well-known for its Carriage Museum and Sleighs. The folks kindly hitched up Dylan the horse and took me for a sleigh ride. Notice the deep snow on the ground in February, and how bundled up we are. That’s me behind the horse’s ear.
Now, a “one horse open sleigh” is a difficult ride, I discovered. It is very jouncy and actually pretty hard to physically stay in the sleigh. They tipped over easily. They got stuck a lot. And it is cold. Brrr! Imagine it being your only transportation, for hours on end.
But the bells are a charming item to explore. It is the silence of the sleigh without bells that caused owners to install bells in the sleigh. When the snow banks get high, pedestrians and other vehicles cannot hear the sleigh coming. The bells, each type having a different sound, makes the merry jingle that prompted the song, “Jingle Bells.” It was explained that there are belly bells, which go around the horse’s belly, shaft bells, which are installed atop the sleigh, and saddle chimes, which are attached to the saddle. Owners are partial to the different tones, usually sticking with their favorite kind of bell for their sleigh.
Shaft chimes are solid brass mounted on a steel bar that is attached to the bottom or tongue or shaft. The bell part is open and the clapper makes the sound as it sways back and forth. They make a super sound, not only because they are usually bronze, but because they are mounted in fours, making a strong chime. Jingle bells were mostly enclosed bells with a small pea-type “jinglet” rolling around inside. Bells that made the best sounds were made of cast brass. They could be heard over long distances yet they had a variety of sounds. The bells were not only warning signals used in various modes of vehicular transportation, but were a personal brand in the times before cell phones that said Papa was on his way home. For example, when the owner of an estate was coming home, the hounds would recognize the particular bells’ sound from a distance, distinguishing it from the others that were resonating all over the hills. The dog would yelp and bark, letting the family know that the lord was on his way.
Here is a good link to read more about sleigh bells.
I had some really negative adventures being a reporter, but those are balanced by the fun opportunities the work afforded. Riding a sleigh was a huge kick, and something I’ll never forget. It also makes me very grateful for my car with comfy heat and a CD player!