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The Dinner Bell is Calling

By Robin Mayes, Farm Educator

When guests see the triangle-shaped iron dinner bell we have hanging on the porch of the farmhouse they are often a bit intrigued. Moms can relate to how handy it might be to summon the kids home from playing with the neighborhood children, but the days of calling the family in from the fields has all but passed. Our dinner bell is similar to the musical triangle you may have seen played in a music class, but a heftier version. More like the ones in old westerns that were often attached to the chuckwagons. Some farms of the past used actual bells to let workers know it was dinnertime. 


At a time when not everyone had a telephone, dinner bells were sometimes called upon to do more. 

The farm on which my grandmother grew up not only had a large bell, but the house had a belfry, or small bell tower that housed the bell! She said that the rope that was pulled to ring the bell came down through the roof and through the ceiling and hung over the dining room table. On more than one occasion that bell played a vital role in averting tragedy on the family farm. 

My grandmother and me and my nieces beside the dinnerbell post with the sign relating the history of the bell.

Not only were those large bells used to draw workers in from the field to eat a meal, they were also invaluable in compelling the workers and even neighbors within hearing distance to respond when help was needed. The Dunnan Family dinner bell was rung one day when the barn caught fire. Great Grandma Dunnan began ringing that bell incessantly until neighbors came running and the barn was saved! Another time when Great Grandma was at the farm alone with her youngest children, one of the milk cows misbehaved and kicked her in the head rendering her unconscious. While the older small children tended to their mother, they instructed tiny Martha to run in and ring the bell. She was so young and small that she had to use a chair and climb onto the dining room table. Martha then had to use all her weight and strength to get the big bell to toll. She did it though, and an adult neighbor came quickly and took charge of the situation.  


When I was young, the bell was on a post in my grandma’s backyard. She always said that bell had saved her mother’s life. In fact, she had printed the story of how the bell had been used and had a sign made and attached to the post. It was such a thrill whenever she let us ring the bell! And we could imagine all the neighbors coming at a dead run! Of course, they didn’t. By that time in history, a neighbor ringing a bell was nothing but an annoyance. If they needed anything, they would pick up the phone and use the party line to let everyone in that area know they needed help. Eventually, that bell ended up in the possession of one of my male cousins who was a Dunnan. Grandma thought that was appropriate since none of the rest of us carried the Dunnan name. 

The Dunnan family home with the belfry on top.


When I was a youngster, my older sister and I had made friends with the son of the caretaker of the cemetery near our home. We spent a lot of time in that graveyard playing whenever he accompanied his dad to mow and tend the graves there. Prior to the Palm Sunday tornado of 1965, there was a small church in the yard there. It included a large bell in a tower. After the tornado came through, the only thing they found of the little chapel was that huge bell. It was returned to the cemetery and positioned atop a stone wall. It then became something that teenagers loved to sneak in and ring at odd hours 

much to the chagrin of those of us who lived nearby! 


Stop out at Gallant Farm one day soon and check out our little dinner bell. You may even get a chance to give it a ring. The farm is open Wednesday – Sunday, 12pm – 5pm until May 1. The farmhouse remains closed to visitors. 

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