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Local Sleigh Bells made Melodic Memories

by Robert Uzzilia
Cairo Town Historian

Originally published in the Daily Mail December 21, 2003

Winter in the Northeast brings for some, cherished memories of activities unique to that season.  Sleighing, was once a popular means of conveyance on primitive snow covered roads of the 19th and early 20th centuries.  A team of sturdy horses could pull three or more people and their belongings in what was formerly known as a Buffalo Speeding Cutter.  This classic light sleigh, with its thin iron runners, could navigate through deep snow with relative ease.  The weekly ride to church or a visit to Grandma’s became, to many young people, an
adventure.  After waving to passing friends and locating familiar landmarks, they
soon found themselves huddling under a heavy fur blanket as their feet were
warmed by a ceramic vessel under the seat. 

But for the driver of the sleigh, safety was the main concern on every trip.  Early on, sleighs whisked about silently and this created a hazard for pedestrians and other oncoming sleighs.  The need for a warning system became critical.  Laws were passed and the required signal took the form of a long leather strap attached by a buckle to each horse, with many bells spaced evenly along it.  As the horses plodded along, a jangling, melodic sound was produced, letting other drivers know a sleigh was coming. 

Many of these bells were produced locally, from the factory of William Barton, who came to Cairo in 1828 from East Hampton, Connecticut.  In 1808 Barton had established America’s first factory devoted exclusively to the manufacture of sleigh bells. He had also been the first to develop the method of one-piece sand casting, imbedding the “dangle” in sand which was later shaken out, producing a relatively seamless bell.  This revolutionized the industry by saving much time and expense.  It gave Barton great notoriety in the business.

Since laws had been passed in the early 19th century, requiring the use of sleigh bells on horses used in winter, Barton must have seen great potential in the fast growing towns of Greene County.  There was ample water power, forests to supply the fuel for a foundry and relatively cheap land. 

It was along a tributary of the Shingle Kill, (later to be known as Bell Brook), leading to the Catskill Creek that he would establish a saw mill and factory.  He also apprenticed his sons Hiram and Hibbard who would later establish factories of their own back in East Hampton. 

The locally made bells were stamped with the initials “W. B.” or  “H. B.” and an attractive petal design.  Most were brass or bronze but occasionally made of pewter. All produced a beautiful sound and are still being rediscovered singly or in original straps.  Theirs is a special and exhilarating sound.  Longfellow once described the sound of sleigh bells as  “beating as swift and merrily as the hearts of children.”  Perhaps that is why their sound is so revered, a beckoning call to a simpler time.

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