The dinner bell is just one more thing that served its purpose then disappeared, as did coal-oil lamps and chamber pots, leaving only memories.
One of the many things that I looked forward to, in the summer, was going to Frances, Kentucky to visit Grandma and Grandpa Whitt's farm and getting to ring the dinner bell at 11:30 on weekdays. When I was a child almost every farm had a dinner bell, it was used to call the men to the house when the noon meal, dinner as they called it, was ready. Dinner would be ready at 12:00 o'clock noon, but a half-hour was allowed to bring the team of mules, Kate and Jude, to the barn to be fed and for Grandpa and the hired hands to get washed up.
When Kate and Jude heard the first peal of the dinner bell, they knew it was time to eat and rest so they stopped dead in their tracks. if they were stopped in the middle of a row, Grandpa had to prod them on to the end of the row so they could be unhitched from the plow or whatever they were pulling. After the meal, the men went outside and sat on the porch, or under a shade tree to rest for about an hour, by that time Kate and Jude were rested too and they went back to the field to work until sundown.
In those days watches were hard to come by and not all men had one. The old clock, on the wall or on the mantelpiece, was the only means of telling time. The clock in the Whitt house, sat on the mantelpiece above a big open fireplace in Grandma and Grandpa's bedroom, which in the winter was also their sitting room. They referred to that room as "the house". if we were in the kitchen grandma would tell me to go in "the house" and see what time it was. The reason for calling it the house was, when they were young, kitchens were built apart from the main house to protect it from fire and to keep from heating the whole house in the summer. Grandma checked the time often, as she wanted to have the meal ready at the exact same time every day.
In those days when a farmer was in the field he could guess the time of day, if the sun was shining, within an hour of noon. As he had been working since daylight he sometimes used this method to see how much longer it would be until dinner. He would stand with his back toward the sun, with it's rays shining over his left shoulder. He put his right foot out as if to take a normal step. The position of the toe of his brogan on the shadow of his head gave him an approximate time. Of course this method didn't work on cloudy days.
Before Grandpa's mother, Sarah, died she told Grandpa and his sister Martha, that one of them could have her horse and the other could have a pocket watch, her most prized possessions. Aunt Martha chose the horse so Grandpa got the watch. It was a beautiful gold watch, much larger than the pocket watches of today. The face had a solid cover with an engraved design on it. When he wanted to see what time it was, he pressed a small button, which opened the cover. After he checked the time the cover was snapped shut. He could wind it either by the stem or with a small key.
Grandpa carried his watch, which was on a chain, in his vest pocket, on the other end of the chain was a beautiful, multi-faceted, crystal watch fob. The chain hung down from the watch, looped back up through one of the buttonholes and the fob dangled down on the front of his vest. All of the grandchildren and great grandchildren were fascinated with the glistening watch fob. He carried his watch only on Saturday and Sunday or on rare occasions when they went visiting. To avoid abusing his watch he didn't dare carry it to work in the fields, so the dinner bell served as his timepiece.
The dinner bell could be heard for a distance of up to one mile. We were forbidden to ring the dinner bell except at noon, if it was rung at any other time it was a distress signal. If there was an accident, fire, sickness or other emergency, the dinner bell was rung to call for help. Everyone within hearing distance would drop everything and run to give aid in an emergency.
When visiting in Kentucky, I always drive up the gravel road to the Whitt farm on top of
Bald Knob. I drive down a lane and stop in front of the remains of the old ice house. If
I close my eyes for a moment and listen, I can still heear the peals of the old dinner bell.
When Grandpa Whitt died, August 10th 1935, the pocket watch was passed on to his son,
Allie Louis. It was then given to Allie Louis Whitt Jr. (Dick). When the watch is
mentioned, Dick always makes a remark that Grandpa was a lot smarter than Aunt
Martha. Today, the watch is proudly displayed under a glass dome in his home, but
Aunt Martha's horse has been long gone.
Mildred Y. Wilson