The early colonies of the New World have always fascinated me, and in recent years I have focused on the establishment of New Netherland. These initial settlers interest me because of their ability to succeed in an unfamiliar environment and at such a great distance from their homes in the Old World. They had to rely on themselves and each another for supplies, food, support and survival; a crop failure or illness could be devastating.
While reading Firth Haring Fabend’s book A Dutch Family in the Middle Colonies, 1660-1800, I ran across a description of the contents of an attic in the 1790s on a farm in New York - previously New Netherland. This intrigued me. The narrative described the attic in this way: “Nuts of all kinds were stored in baskets and bags, apples and pears in their season, [and] bags of dried apples and beans. Spinning wheels, . . . spare ribs and sausage, bacon and ham, bundles of broom corn for brooms and field corn on the cob for the next year’s planting, garden seeds and herbs of many kinds, boxes and barrels and chests, and irons and drums, sleigh bells large enough to be heard a mile distant, harness, tin horns, ropes and whips, stepladders and stoves, candle moulds and sausage stuffers, hand sleds and cradles . . .” (Fabend, 64-65).
As the attic contents are listed it is simple to see their necessity for the family’s survival. The seeds and tools inventoried clearly show the preparation for the future that was required to survive in the New World - far from a supply source. The food items cataloged demonstrate the need to store up to survive the winter, with dried apples and beans and salted meats being eaten carefully throughout the icy months. Simply stated, the items in this attic reveal how serious life was for these early folk. There is, however, an item listed that captured my thoughts, attention and delight. It was the “sleigh bells large enough to be heard a mile distant.” What a magnificent thing, to actually own sleigh bells that would be so large as to be heard a mile away!
Along with all the seriousness of enduring until spring are those enchanting bells just waiting to ring loudly through the snowy countryside. In my mind’s eye, I see a frosty home with a curl of thin, grey smoke coming from its chimney sitting in the middle of smooth, hard, white snow. The chores have been done, the animals are all eating in the barn and the family is busy inside near the fireplace. They are occupied stirring soup or kneading bread or whittling or cleaning a gun or sewing a patch on a torn jacket. As they busily work side-by-side, the air is filled with humming and soft discussions of their days work; then a sound is heard in the distance. One by one they each stop what they are doing and listen and with great excitement they recognize it as the sound of their neighbor’s sleigh bells still a mile away. Suddenly the homely cottage is filled with anticipation as more potatoes are added to the soup and the biscuits are rolled a little thinner so as to have more to share with their guests. Projects are quickly put away and extra wood is brought in to warm their wintery guests. As the cheery sound of the sleigh bells halt near the front door a bit of regret is felt because no dessert had been prepared to go with the evening meal. Peering out the frosty windowpane at the visitors as they dismount from their sled, the wife notices her friend carrying a pie pan wrapped in layers of linen cloth; in it is a pie made from attic apples. As the sounds of laughter replace the clatter of the sleigh bells all are reminded that though life is filled with hard work, there is always time to enjoy living and the sound of distant sleigh bells.
Firth Haring Fabend, A Dutch Family in the Middle Colonies, 1660-1800 (New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press, 1991.