The real story behind West Virginia’s “Dinner Bells”



    In the quiet coalfields of southern West Virginia there is a simple brick house. The house sits at the edge of a steep mountain and overlooks one of over a hundred streams and creeks in the area.

    At the back of this house there is a pole and at the top of that pole there is a simple and unsuspecting red bell. Though faded and leaning sharply, the heavy piece of steel continues to watch over my great-grandfather’s backyard, as it has my entire life, and for that matter, most of his.

    Today, the bell is nothing more than just another overlooked lawn ornament dotting the West Virginia landscape. Nothing different from the dozens of flag poles, painted rocks and porcelain objects scattered across all the other yards of his aging community.

    Once upon a time, however, this innocent looking bell was the only thing that stood between my relatives and revenuers intent upon cracking down on the region’s prevalent moonshine industry.

    According to my 91-year-old great-grandfather, a century ago, large bells like the one pictured were not only visible on his property, but on nearly all of the tracts of land adjoining the small stream known as Elk Creek – all part of a well-orchestrated, defense network designed to notify Mingo County’s brewers of strangers being spotted in the area.

    “I remember going with my dad to visit my aunt who lived just a ways up the hollow, when I was just a young boy,” my great-grandfather whispered to me, in a frail and weak voice that seemed so foreign from the deep, proud and crackling tone I will always remember him having.

    Pausing just long enough to catch his escaping breath, he continued, “Every time we’d get there, I would ask her where my older cousins were and she’d always say that they were up in the woods looking for some hogs that had gotten out.”

    “I always thought it was odd that their hogs would get out so often, and one day I finally said, ‘You fellers need to build a better hogpen’ and my dad and aunt both started laughing!”

    “One day, while we were there, a black car drove by and she jumped to her feet and ran out the back of the house. Within a matter of seconds, every bell within a few miles was ringing and a couple of minutes afterward, here come my cousins running out of the mountains.”

    Today, the exploits of coldblooded killings taking place outside train tunnels and prevalence of illegal whiskey distilling is a piece of Bloody Mingo’s history many of the residents would just assume forget; however, there is one West Virginia resident – nearly a century old – who will never forget the true reason there are so many of those peculiar looking “lunch bells” in the coalfields of the Mountain State.

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    1. My mom grew up during the depression in the hills of West Virginia. She would tell stories of the family’s dinner bell, but her story was so different from this one! They would be up before daylight, eat breakfast, and feed the animals. After this was done, all but maybe 1 or 2 family members would head out to the fields to work in the gardens. Those left at home got busy to prepare food for those working in the fields! As they worked they kept an ear open to hear the sound of the dinner bell. This meant that they could rest a while and eat the mid-day meal. The workers would return to the field to work until the faithful bell would ring to signal the end of the days work and supper time! The youngsters that were old enough to go to the fields to work were so happy to hear the bell ring! The final ring for supper was the highlight of their day!

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