Showing Up With Bells On

February 24, 2024

Mule Leads Mary and Betty in the Mule Days Arena Following the Parade

Lead mules of the 20 Mule Team after the Mule Days Parade in Bishop, CA with Betty on left and Mary on right. Note Mary’s missing bell.

The real heyday of mule freighting across the western US was in the latter half of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries. Many of the skills and traditions developed in those early days have persisted until today. One of those traditions was for the lead mules in a string to wear “mule bells”. While some have speculated that the bells were there to “warn” oncoming teams, anyone who has spent much time in the western deserts realizes that you could see an approaching team from miles– maybe even days – away – long before you could hear them. The real reason for the bells on the lead mules was to provide a cadence for the other mules to walk to; their keen sense of hearing made it easy for even the last mules in the string to hear the sound.

Another tradition of that era was for mule skinners to personalize the bells to tunings of their own liking, and they took great pride in them. If a wagon became stuck, the muleskinner who came to the rescue often asked for the set of bells as a reward for his assistance. Arriving at your destination without the bells hurt a driver’s professional pride. Conversely, if you “showed up with bells on”, it was a source of satisfaction. That phrase remains in common use today, to mean you are showing up enthusiastic and ready to go.

Mule bells is a tradition carried on by Bobby Tanner, the muleskinner from Bishop, CA whose mules pull the DVC replica wagons in parades and other public appearances. Both of his lead mules – Mary and Betty – wear a set of five bells attached to the top of their hames.

Two of the original mule bells – one intact and the other shattered

Two of the original mule bells – one intact and the other shattered

Unfortunately, during a Mule Days parade a few years ago, one of the bells cracked. One of the swampers saw this and gathered up the pieces. We knew right away that we wanted to replace this critical piece of the Twenty Mule Team story. Thus began the search for someone who could replicate these old bells.

After contacting all of the existing bell manufacturers in the US, we settled on U.S. Bells, with a foundry located in Prospect Harbor, Maine. Tim Fisher, one of the family members who owns and operates the business, took a personal interest in the project.

There are several methods for casting bronze bells, but Tim advised using the green sand mold method. Tim used one of the existing mule bells as a template to create a mold, which was made by packing fine sand around and inside the bell. The mold was created in two pieces (top and bottom). Once assembled molten brass was poured into the mold thru the “spru hole”, then cooled, and then the mold split open to reveal the new bell.

The bottom half of the bell mold, with the template bell still in place

The top half of the mold showing channels through which the molten brass can flow

Both halves of the bell mold are visible

Both halves of the bell mold are visible

It was important to capture the fine lines in the original bells

It was important to capture the fine lines in the original bells

Pouring molten brass into the mold

Pouring molten brass into the mold

“Raw” bells direct from the molds

“Raw” bells direct from the molds

The original bell on the left, with new replicas on the right

The original bell on the left, with new replicas on the right

Since we already had the molds, we decided to make a few extra bells to have on hand for future contingencies. The replica bell will make its public debut at the May 25, 2024 Mule Days Parade in Bishop, California – the Saturday before Memorial Day.

Mule bells jingle at Mule Days in Bishop, CA

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2024-02-24T23:20:13-08:00