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Entries about Minnesota history from MNopedia are made available through a partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society and with funding from the Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

Meet the Minnesotan who figured out the country needed more cowbell(s)

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Tinted photographic postcard showing Lewis Street in Watertown, c.1909.

For thirty years, William Bleedorn was one of only a few cow bell manufacturers in the United States. Between 1863 and 1885, his foundry in Carver County produced thousands of bells that were used by farmers across the country.

Bleedorn was born in Prussia (now Germany) in 1835. In 1853, he arrived in the United States and settled in Wisconsin, where he lived for ten years. He married Minnie Schroeder in 1857. The couple would go on to have seven children.

In 1863, Bleedorn registered for the draft. At the time, he was living in Watertown—then a small hamlet near the northern border of Carver County. Bleedorn did not begin his military service until 1865, when he served a total of four months and ten days with Company D of the First Battalion, Minnesota Infantry.

Bleedorn opened the Watertown Bell Foundry in 1864 in downtown Watertown. The community grew rapidly during the 1870s and was incorporated as a village in 1877.

Bleedorn found a unique and in-demand trade: manufacturing cow bells. He established a production process in which he cut out and shaped each of his bells individually from sheet metal he had shipped to himself.

Each of Bleedorn’s bells was made to produce a slightly different sound. Farmers who did not fence in their fields could locate their free-roaming cattle quickly by listening for the unique tones of their bells.

When Bleedorn began his foundry, it was one of only three in the country. He was the only cow bell manufacturer in Minnesota.

During the mid-1870s, a planned railroad that would have served Watertown was rerouted. This was a major disappointment for the city, which missed out on the business opportunities that would have been made possible by rail service. Despite this setback, the Watertown Bell Foundry continued to succeed. By 1882, the foundry was reported to have been producing between three thousand and five thousand bells each year.

The foundry closed in 1885. Bleedorn continued to live in Carver County until his death in 1913.

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