Once Upon a Time: ‘Bells’


Gordon Hepburn, along with his wife, Olive, was curator of the Bruce County Museum for many years. This is his memory of some lost sounds from years past, written in 1976.

‘I wonder how many of us realize to what extent bells have been used in our county, each serving us in a special way. Let us recall some of those bells. Before horses were commonly used, oxen were belled when out to pasture, even a four-in-one bell, which told the owner the whereabouts of his animal when it was needed for work. The bell was specially constructed so that it was difficult for the ox to keep it silent so the owner could not find him. Yes, an ox could be very cunning to avoid work.

Then, too, think of the bells we hear outside our residences—the school bell, the church bell, the bell on the paper boy’s bicycle, the bell of the train as it pulls into the station yard. Suddenly, in the dark of a stormy night, we are startled to hear the sound of the fire bell. It may be a relative’s home, a store or a business where we had worked during that day. How many of us could get back to sleep after hearing that alarm in the dead of night?

As I write this tonight, it is storming outside. That makes me think of bells on teams of horses with sleigh loads of young folk going by on our road, almost hidden by the flying snow. As the horses trotted along, their movement rang the bells for everyone to hear, all clearly sounding in the frosty air. The riders were covered in warm buffalo robes as they watched for lights in the window to guide them safely home after a cold trip from town.

Wouldn’t it be delightful to step back into the past years for a day in summer and a day in winter just to hear again the peaceful and joyful sounds these different bells sent out in all directions. No startling blare of a horn then, just a quiet and tranquil tinkle, calmly informing us of life and movement around us. Lost treasures are these, which we may not hear again as they were once heard in Bruce County.

This article was first written for the Bruce County Historical Society’s 1976 yearbook and adapted by Bob Johnston