Bells like these were usually attached to the top of the harness and were used by drivers to warn others of approaching traffic.
Maneuvering large loads was difficult on narrow country roads that often allowed passage for only one vehicle at a time. Giving advanced notice was important and gave drivers time to find a good place to pull over.
Although interpreted in a few different ways the phrase “to be there with bells on” might have something to do with this warning system. When a wagon got stuck in mud the driver who helped move it was sometimes rewarded with a set of bells.
Arriving at a destination with a full set of bells meant arriving incident-free.
Freight team. Sierra Nevada Mountains. PCM Collection
The bells belonged to James H. Sweeney of Placerville, who purchased them in Auburn in 1889 from a teamster who was freighting between Auburn and Foresthill. Sweeney was 16 years old at that time and used them for 22 years on his own freight team. He modified the bow on which the bells are mounted and made it from sections of a crosscut saw.
In 1937 he gave the bells to Dr. H. L. Fuog of Los Angeles, who later donated them to our museum.