Advent's 1,500-lb. tower bell rings again

Exodus Prelude

“The sound of the bells will be heard when he enters the Holy Place before the Lord and when he comes out, so that he will not die.” — Exodus 28:35

1. The Bell

By Dan Clifford


The Church of the Advent, Cynthiana, is the keeper of a big bronze bell made by the Niles Works foundry in Cincinnati in 1869 (pronounced “nill-ess”). It sits bout 40’ off the ground in a hand-laid limestone bell tower. The bell has been silent for some time, but no more. After a little TLC by myself, a few mini-miracles and plain old hard work, it is now pealing again.

2. History

A little history: Parishioners and frustrated vestry members would occasionally lament over the years — or at least the last 22 years that my wife and I have been going to Advent — that we should “hire somebody” to fix the bell. I’m here to tell you that “hiring somebody” never got very far, and I’m not at all sure it is a hire-able job anyway.


A little more history: Advent’s limestone church building was built starting in 1855. According to our history and Wikipedia, the bell tower was completed in 1860, though the Niles bell says 1869 on it. Thus, a mystery is at hand, as the bell could not have been brought up into the tower after the tower was built. Was the tower built after the bell was set in place? If so, its final date was after 1869.


Really recent history: I once pledged to the congregation that fixing the bell was on my bucket list. Well, I fixed it... Now I just hope I am not about to kick the bucket!

3. Research

This author did some homework about the bell before making any major mistakes!


Steve Doerger, at the Verdin Company in Cincinnati (http://www.verdin.com), said this about the bell: “Niles bells are generally considered excellent quality… and, if maintained properly, should last for many future generations to enjoy. Based on your bell being 36” wide, the bell will weigh approximately 1,000 lbs. Typically the A-stands, yoke, and interior clapper equipment will combine to weigh about half that of the bell, so you can estimate that your bell and equipment weigh about 1,500 lbs.”


Also very helpful was Carl S. Zimmerman (csz_stl@swbell.net) in St. Louis, who gave great advice, and I thank him. Zimmerman, a self-described campanologist (bell tower historian), said: “The curved spokes of the wooden wheel are quite unusual. That’s actually a quite simple and effective design, in spite of the extra effort required to make curved rather than straight spokes.” Zimmerman said: “I’ve been involved with tower bells for over 60 years, initially as a carillonneur. Over the years that avocation has evolved so that now I am primarily a tower bell historian, or campanologist. I believe that God has been good to me in giving me many opportunities to visit various bell towers housing carillons, chimes or single bells. So, I share what I have learned with folks like you, so that church bells can continue to ring to His glory.”


It was comforting to find both Doerger and Zimmerman as coaches.

4. The Process

While they may be high in the sky, bells need some seriously grounded maintenance. After spending one Saturday assessing what needed to be done, here is a progress note I sent to parishioners after the second Saturday of work:


“Parishioners, I spent much of the day on the bell again. I jacked up the floorboard in places that were sagging and leveled the bell pretty well, I snugged up the bell to its base (yoke) and drilled a new bigger hole for the rope.

We had a few minor miracles: 1) I needed a big fat board or beam to reinforce the floor, at least 84” long. Sadly, there was no way to poke the long beam I brought up into the crawl space under the bell, but amazingly a nice big board about about 3” x 14” and 88” long was just laying up there! Also there was enough spare wood for the braces, and chocks for the jacks; 2) I needed some shims, and lo and behold the old-timers had left a bunch of cedar shims laying around all over the place; 3) the big bolt that holds the clapper and bell was not bent (I had feared it might be); 4) the big nut on top of the bell has a cap, which was packed full of grease by some thoughtful person long ago, and the nut turned like new; 5) I was afraid the bolt threads would strip, so I jacked up the bell to relieve the pressure, and the threads did not strip; 6) the second floor under the bell floor has braces to hold up the floor joists the bell sits on, but the braces were loose, which means the top floor has never sagged enough to put any pressure on the second floor underneath.


The bell is now more level, and rings side to side like it should. It still needs to be a little better balanced. The wooden rope wheel no longer rubs. I need to put bolts in the braces, and we need some kind of pads on the clapper springs. When I tightened up the floor the rope hole got out of alignment, so I drilled a new hole.”

5. Result and Reflection

RESULT

The bell, while neglected over the years, was not damaged, which was a relief. On the third Saturday in the bell tower, my son, Adam, and I finished leveling the bell with shims, secured it to the floor with lag bolts and anchored it to the rock walls of the tower to prevent side-to-side movement. We put new leather pads on the clapper springs, restrung the bell and the tolling hammer, and drilled new holes in the belfry ceiling to create perfectly vertical pulls. The result is a near-balanced bell that is easy to pull and rings a nice “ding-dong” rhythmic sound like it should.


The final task was buying and re-stringing proper no-stretch bell ropes, with their colorful sallies, which came from Mendip Ropemakers, LTD in England.


REFLECTION

I came away from this job with some contrasts, and I love contrasts: 1) You are crawling around in what normally is earthly dust and gook, yet you are way up high in the air; 2) You are working in an 1850s building with a clear view of a new Walmart and a cell phone tower; 3) The physics, engineering, hopes and dreams of a bell designed and cast by long-dead craftsmen still works; 4) From the mortal can come the sublime; 5) What is old can be new again; and 6) What was dead can live again.


Come visit and ring the bell. It’s easy!


Emmett Daniel (Dan) Clifford is Senior Warden at the Church of the Advent, and Vice President of the Episcopal Diocese of Lexington. When he is not fixing bells in grimy belfries, he is an attorney.