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Stage Coach Sleigh Bells

Sleigh bells used for stage runs and recreational trips in Sauk County, Wisconsin during the 1870s.
(Museum object #1967.341.1)

It has been over 150 years since the famous winter-time song Jingle Bells was first penned, and horse-drawn sleighs have all but disappeared, but the romantic image of moonlight, cozy blankets, and “dashing through the snow” to the rhythm of sleigh bells has persevered, particularly during the holiday season. During the 1870s, such bells were a very real part of this wintry idyllic vision in Sauk County, Wisconsin. Along with another nearly identical strap also in the Museum's collection, the bells featured here were used on the winter time sleigh runs of stage drivers Carlos Grow and Charles Stoddard on the 12 mile journey between Baraboo and Prairie du Sac.

Each string originally included 22 bells, each cast of bronze and mounted on leather straps. The bells graduate in size from one-and-a-half inch in diameter at the ends up to nearly three inches in diameter in the center of the string. Family legend states that these bells were a hundred years old even before their use by the Grow and Stoddard team. Believed to have been made in England and brought to America prior to the Revolutionary War, the Grow family kept the bells in Vermont and passed them from generation to generation until Carlos brought them to Wisconsin around 1870. When Carlos died in 1900, his widow presented them to Charles Stoddard, honoring the friendship between the two men and their families.

Rapid expansion of the railroad network in Wisconsin during the 1850s ended the need for long distance stage coaches that had earlier serviced the same lines. The railroad’s growth, however, initiated a need for new stage lines that ran the shorter distances from train depots out to neighboring towns. For example, in 1856 when the Milwaukee railroad expanded to Portage, a stage began a new run from Portage to Baraboo. When the railroad completed a line between Madison and Baraboo in 1872, the stagecoach trip that had formerly taken 12 hours between the two cities was discontinued, but stage owners like Grow and Stoddard capitalized on the need for “feeder lines” that then ran out of Baraboo. During the winter months, stages used sleighs instead of wheeled coaches and their travel on snow, rather than rutted roads, greatly increased the speed of their journeys.

Seemingly most fondly remembered, though, are the recreational journeys Grow and Stoddard made during the winter, hitching up four horses to their sleigh and taking runs out to the country or delivering passengers to local festivities. One story recounts a snowstorm “on the night of the oyster supper at the Prairie du Sac Baptist Church. Mr. Stoddard went around with covered sleigh and jingling sleigh bells to give rides to those persons wishing to get to the social event.” The bells became quite a part of local lore, with their fine and “peculiar” tone credited as being recognizable from as far as four to five miles away, and as reported in the February 1, 1900 edition of the Milwaukee Sentinel, “at one time there was not a citizen in Sauk county who could not distinguish the Grow ringers from any other string used in the county.”

Apparently Charles Stoddard never gave up his love of driving horses. In 1920, at the advanced age of 89, he was driving his team in town when an automobile passing another car accidentally struck his wagon, throwing him from his vehicle and dragging him some distance as he held on to the reins. While Stoddard escaped injury, the incident badly damaged his wagon. Neither car stopped to check on him, and Mr. Stoddard later asserted that they were driving too fast. Stoddard died the following year and one of his sons gave the bells to Ella A. Wiswall of Madison, who subsequently presented them to the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Sources: Current, Richard N. The History of Wisconsin, Volume II: The Civil War Era, 1848-1873 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1976); Mueller, Erhart. Always in Sumpter (Stevens Point, WI: Worzalla Publishing Co., 1983).]


Posted on January 11, 2007

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  • Frontier Wisconsin
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