Conestoga Wagons, part 2 – Teamsters, King’s Highway, “There will be bells”

“I’ll be there with bells!” How many among the readers of this column know that this expression originated 200 years or more ago among the drivers of Conestoga wagons along our old Lancaster highway?

How long the narrow trail had sufficed the Indians for their travels from their inland homes to the sea before increasing traffic made better roads necessary is a matter of conjecture. It was not until 1733 that the Governor and the Provincial Council recognized a petition by the Conestoga framers for a “King’s Highway”.

Acting on the petition, the Province ordered that a dirt road thirty feet wide be laid from the courthouse in Center Square, Lancaster, “until it fell in with the high-road in the County of Chester”, and so through to the High Street Ferry on the Schuylkill.

Thus was the narrow Indian trail transformed into the dirt road that was the early predecessor of our present 61 mile highway between Philadelphia and Lancaster.

As a matter of fact, this first dirt road was little different from the Indian trail except that it was wider. As late as 1773 tree stumps remained in the road, and for a long time there were no bridges across the streams. During much of the year the road was almost impassable in places. At best, Conestoga Wagons covered only 15 or 20 miles a day.

Often when two teamsters going in opposite directions met, one had to yield the high crown of the road to the other. Sometimes it required a fist fight to settle the matter of who should do the yielding. Eventually one driver often found himself in the ditch. No one ever offered to help him unless he asked for such help. On the other hand, none ever refused to give assistance when asked for it.

Once the request for help was given, the distressed teamster withdrew his own stalled horses to have them replaced by those of the rescuer. If the later was successful, he was rewarded by the gift of the bells from the other team. The unfortunate driver lost the right to use bells until he, in turn, had rescued another team in trouble. If a teamster arrived at this journey’s end with his bells intact, it was assumed that he had had no trouble along the way. And so the saying that is still a common one today, “I’ll be there with bells on.”

Of these early bells Howard Frey, writing in “Pennsylvania Songs and Legends”, says, “Much might be said about the attractive and musical brass bells that were suspended form the iron arch over the horses’ shoulders. The bell arches were ornamented. They were covered with bearskin or some other fur, or with black and red cloth tied with dangling, fancy ribbons. Six sets of bells were usual for a six-horse team, although many teamsters used only five sets because bells on the saddle horse interfered somewhat with driving. There frequently were five bells on the lead horses, four somewhat larger bells on the middle horses, and three still larger ones on the pole horses.

“It is not known just how these bells originated. We do know, however, that the lead horse in a train of pack horses carried a bell, probably to warn approaching persons to move to the side and make way for passing on the narrow dirt paths that led through the wilderness. There is no manufacturer’s name on these bells, and it s not known whether they were American-made or imported; nor does anyone know the significance of the customary 5-4-3 arrangement. The bells of different sizes produce not only noise, but music as well, and were among the proudest possessions of the wagoners.”

Other accoutrements in which the drivers of the old Conestoga wagons took pride were the bridle rosettes, pompons, ribbons and tassels. The rosettes were usually plain brass buttons which were made of horse hair or wood dyed red or blue, and were fastened to the bridle under the rosettes. Sometimes the hair of the horses’ forelocks was plaited with red, white and blue ribbons.

A blacksnake whip was an indispensible part of every wagoner’s equipment, thick and hard at the butt and tapering tot he end, to which was attached a plaited lash. these were the work of highly skilled saddlers. The harness was always the best that could be gotten, with particularly heavy sets for the larger teams.

As they travelled through the villages and Pike towns these caravans of wagons were a never failing source of interest to the inhabitants. At the sound of the Conestoga bells they came to their doorways to watch these wagoners as they drove from their “lazy board” or walked beside their teams. one large wagon alone with its six horses, stretched to a length of 60 feet. There were days in the 1700’s and 1800’s when the sparsely settled inhabitants of what is now Wayne and its neighboring suburbs could probably see several hundreds of these wagons pass in the course of a day, along what then was King’s Highway.

Another expression in addition to “be there with bells on” that stems back from the present to those early Pennsylvania days is, “Watch your p’s and q’s”. It originated when tavern keepers made a record of charges against their customers by wiring on a slate that was kept behind the tavern bar in full view of everyone who frequented the tavern.

“When a pint of whiskey was purchased on credit”, according to Mr. Frey, “the letter P was written on the slate, and when a quart was purchased, the letter Q was recorded. Some of the heavy drinkers would sometimes have too many P’s and Q’s entered back of their names, and the proprietor reminded them that their bills were getting too high by saying “Watch your P’s and Q’s.”

Still another expression that one hears occasionally in these days, though not as frequently as the other two to which we have alluded, is “Old Stuck in the Mud.” If it did not originate with these early teamsters, at least it was an epithet with which they often jeered one another when mishaps occurred along the 30 foot wide dirt highway.

A tale is told of one Abraham Witmer who in 1788 built a wooden toll bridge at Deering’s Ford, across the Conestoga River. When some of the wagon drivers tried to evade payment of toll by fording their heavy vehicles below the span they often found themselves in trouble. Not only did they have to forfeit their bells to the passing team that happened along in time to pull them out of the river mud, but they had to listen to Witmer’s ridicule and his shouts, ‘Old Stuck in the Mud’, don’t you wish now that you had paid toll?”