Volume IV, No. 1, Fall 1976


by Ella Dunn as told to Doug Sharp

Photographs by Doug Sharp

So you never heard of a dumbull? It's a nail keg with a groundhog hide stretched on it like a drum. And there's a little hole in the middle of it and a button and a long string--a trot line about ten foot long. You rosin the string. You pull on that string--reach way out--with a glove on you pull the rosin down and you can make it roar. My goodness, it will scare the dead and put your hair up on top. It sounds weird--like, well, like a mad bull. That is where it got its name.

It was first created here in the hills. You know people used to make a living hunting skins, hunting animals for fur. Young men went hunting nights and sold fur. They sort of had a territory of their own to hunt in around their own places at home. Sometimes an outsider would infringe on their right--come in maybe with better dogs and catch their fur. So they decided to invent something good. They really intended to scare the hunter with the dumbull, but it scared the dogs out of the hills, too. They went home. So if they didn't want them to hunt, they just went out and pulled down on that dumbull and they went home. The dogs wouldn't come back any more at night. I know my own dog jumped over my chicken wire fence and came to the door.

Also we had so many tourists coming in here at night and parking in the driveway back when Rock-a-Way was full. So we made us a dumbull. We scared them out.

"This string's too short. The mice ate it off, but they would pull down on this string and, my goodness, this dumbull'd put your hair up on top," Ella Dunn said.

It sure scared them when we pulled on that string. We had some boys that were so lazy they couldn't play ball with the rest of them. And the other boys needed them to play. They'd just go set in the shade. They was so lazy they wouldn't work and they wouldn't even play. So my son Bill and his friends, Walter Cummings, Clifford Palmer and Cecil Weatherman, made it up to see if they could get them to at least run once. It wasn't because they were sick. They were strong and healthy--just lazy. So my husband and son had made a dumbull and my son said, "Well, we'll just see if we can get the Baker boys to move for once." And he said, "Now, Mother, if I don't come home tonight, don't think anything about it. I may go home with Clifford for the night."

But he intended to come home, but he didn't want me to know he was going to scare these boys. So they got on this bluff right around the bend. Walter said he'd walk with the Bakers to see if they got scared enough to run. He wanted to see them run.

When the boys turned that thing loose to bellowing, I want to tell you those boys run! It scared them to death, and Walter, he fell down in the road laughing.

Well, the Bakers ran in here and they was just scared to death. They said there was a wild beast down there and had got Walter down. They said, "He couldn't get away. He just couldn't go any farther and fell in the road, but we got here." They said, "If you'll just let us come in here and lay down on the floor."

I said, "Well, come on in. But it's more and likely someone scaring you."


And they said, "No, it ain't. No one could make that kind of a racket."

I went outside and listened and I heard Walter laughing. I said, "Why, he's not hurt. I hear him laughing."

"No, he's just a-taking on. That animal's got him." And they said, "We're just scared to death. We're afraid to go on home." They were full grown men, both of them.

I said, "No, it's someone trying to scare you. Go on home."

Well, I talked to them until I got them to go down to the culvert on the way toward home, and bless Pat, them boys pulled down on the dumbull again.

And here the Bakers come back. And they said, "Just let us come in, Mrs. Dunn, and lay on the floor. We just can't go another step and you're just going to have to let us lay on the floor."

I said, "Well, come on in and you can go to bed in Bill's bed because I don't think he's coming home." Well, honest to goodness, I didn't know if he was coming home, and here he come with the other boy carrying the dumbull. Well, I run out to meet them. When I heard them talking and laughing fit to kill, I knew what they'd done. So they went out to the shop and hid the dumbull before they come in.

I said, "The Baker boys are in here in your bed. You just scared them to death."

Bill said, "Heck, Mother, I never done anything mean in my life that didn't backfire."

I had to make him and Clifford a bed down instead of the Bakers.

But the next week they couldn't get the Bakers to work or move. They'd rented my brother's place up Bear Creek. They wouldn't work and my brother had let them have the mules to farm with and they wouldn't work or let him have the mules back. So the bunch of boys from down at Walnut Shade went up where they lived with the dumbull and they turned it loose. The cattle all went to bawling and running and the bells were jingling on the cattle. It sounded like the Mexican army had moved in.

The next day the old man went to my brother. He said, "Charley, you can have them mules back and your place, too. We are leaving out. We ain't staying where they got sich animals as you have here. We never hearn tell of sich a noise."

After cutting around the leg at the paw, run the knife point just under the skin on the inside of each leg.

Cut between the legs, just under the hide all the way up the abdomen to the chest. Do not cut too deeply. Then cut up to the neck area and on to the nose. Cut the hide away from the carcass.

Continue cutting the hide off all across the back. You do not need to skin the tail as it is not used on the dumbull.


Bring the hide down the back until it is almost to the front legs. Cut around the hide where it meets the paw and cut open. Then pull off the hide and bring it on to the head. It is not necessary to be careful for the hide on the head is not used.

The skin should be perfectly flat. Remove all excess chunks of meat and fat.

Bury the hide in at least four inches of wet rotted ashes for a week. Remove and scrape off all the hair. Rinse the hide and soak it in lye soap for at least a day. Pull over a pole until it stretches, turns white and is almost dry. It is ready for the keg.

While still damp stretch the skin over the end of a nail keg (remove the rim) and nail securely. Nail the rim back. Place in the sun until dry and tight. Make a small hole in the center of the skin. Fasten one end of a 10 foot trot line through the hole on to a button.

Diagram showing the cutting marks on the groundhog while it is on its back.

"Very few people had dumbulls. They didn't know how to make them. It takes a groundhog hide and a nail keg."


Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.

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