Legend tells this story: In the late 1930s or early ’40s, a cow wandered onto the playing field at a home football game between what was then Mississippi State College and the University of Mississippi. That day, the Bulldogs won against its adversary and the cow became a good luck charm, so much, so students continued bringing a cow to the games. This tradition evolved from a cow to a cowbell and has remained the most cherished of all Mississippi State traditions. In this issue of Town and Gown, we celebrate the tradition by highlighting three custom cowbell designers.
REAVES RINGERS – Piper Reaves-Free developed a passion for painting while attending Mississippi State, so when a friend asked her to paint a bulldog on his cowbell, she happily obliged. Then she started receiving requests to paint cowbells for other people. These many requests are how she grew her Reaves Ringers business, which started in 2012 and continued after Piper graduated in 2014. That same year, ESPN contacted Piper about the tradition of the cowbell.
“We filmed a short feature the day before a football game, and they asked me to paint a cowbell with their official logo on it,” said Piper.
Reaves Ringers are licensed through MSU and pay royalties to support the University. Piper paints “Year of the Cowbell” cowbells, Mississippi State’s official cowbell. Her images have included Davis-Wade and the Chapel of Memories, but she also paints other subjects like barns and family portraits. Custom designs can be ordered through the Cowbell of the Year website.
Piper works full-time as the graphic designer for the Catch-A-Dream Foundation. But nothing keeps her too busy to paint.
“I love graphic design, but I also love to paint,” said Piper. “Not too many days go by that I don’t go to bed with paint on my hands.”
JUNCTION BELLS – Patrick Ray graduated MSU in 2000 with a degree in social studies education. He and his family live in Starkville, but he works in West Point as the principal of the Career and Technology Center where he heads up industry based classes like welding and carpentry, agriculture, engineering, culinary, healthcare, marketing, and early childhood education.
“I like using my hands,” he said, “so I hated to buy something I could make.” Patrick made his cowbell, his son’s cowbell and many other bells as gifts. “I was walking through our metal shop in school and saw a railroad spike, and I thought, ‘Man, that would make a great cowbell handle.'”
The reason it would make a great cowbell handle is that a railroad once crossed the MSU campus to bring students to the depot (now the John C. Stennis Institute of Government) at the Junction. Some of the original train rails are embedded in parts of the Junction walkway.
The Junction; the railroad spike; the cowbell, “That put everything together,” said Patrick. He uses a process to rust the spikes and bells and then sprays them with a clear coating to keep the rust from flaking off.
His second bell, the Lefty, is named after Phil Brandon, a former pitcher for Mississippi State in the late 40s. The handle is shaped like a baseball bat.
“Phil passed away about a year ago, and I talked to his son about letting me name it in his father’s memory.”
Upon request, Patrick will use different handles and take custom orders. Patrick numbers each bell he makes.
BURNETT ART, COWBELLS, AND CALLIGRAPHY – Vicki Burnett has been in Starkville since 1995. About three years ago, she painted a few cowbells as Bunko door prizes and posted photos of them on Facebook.
“A lot of people were interested in me doing them a cowbell,” said Vicki. “I’ve been really surprised and pleased at how well my business has done.”
Last year Vicky painted close to 1,000 cowbells! In Starkville, if it’s painted on a cowbell you have a much better chance of selling art, she said.
Vicki enjoys painting bells for celebratory events like retirements, marriages, and births. One of her cowbells was used in a marriage proposal. The girlfriend was an Alabama fan, so Vicki painted houndstooth on one side with the girlfriend’s name in the center. On the other side, Vicki painted Bully down on one knee, saying, “Will you marry me?” The engagement ring was attached to the bow.
The MSU Athletic Department also commissioned Vicki to paint the 50-year “Game of Change” cowbell. This basketball game was between Mississippi State and Loyola and was the first time Mississippi State played an integrated team.
Vicki painted about 20 bells for the MSU Athletic Department. The surviving players who attended the game signed the bells.
“The players received the Change of Game cowbell with everyone’s signatures,” said Vicki. “Jack Cristil was alive at that time, and he also participated.”
Vicki loves that 12 percent of any trademarked bell goes back to the university, saying that, “No one would be buying cowbells if it wasn’t for Mississippi State.”