COLUMN: Musings of a Simple Country Man

Hobie Morris

I’m a Fool for Bells

There are two kinds of fools: one says, ‘this is old, therefore it is good’; the other says, ‘this is new, therefore it is better’.” Clergyman William Inge Eric Sloan has written that “the sounds of America were once good to hear.”

The “melodies of bells are now nostalgic memories of an older generation…a lost chord perhaps…” George Ortiz, “A Winter Song” (1991)

In July, 1911 the Brookfield Courier reported “we had the usual midnight racket to announce the arrival of another Independence Day. A concert consisting of the church bells, fire gong and canon crackers made life miserable for the would-be sleepers for a period of about 15 minutes, after which comparative quiet prevailed.”

“Is it any wonder that the feelings of people are so bound up with their bell sounds? When the vast still air between earth and heaven is suddenly made alive by the sound of the magic metal, is it any wonder that there are then set free phantoms, memories that run riot with the imagination of men.” …Satis N. Coleman, Bells

Brookfield’s historic Baptist Church, with its majestic pre-Civil War Meneely Bell (cast in its West Troy, New York foundry) is a tangible reminder of America’s Bell Age. A long period in American history while never to be repeated from which we have inherited, a richly endowed historical legacy. In our present age of amazing, sometimes incomprehensible change, it is good to find some peace and tranquility in the bell age; for this reason alone I am a Fool because I see in this period not only something Good, but in fact VERY GOOD.

This “bells in his belfry” simple country man’s father was a Utica born boy growing up In the early years of the 20th Century. He and his generation heard on a daily basis the sounds of many different bells. He was a teenager in 1915, when the famous “Liberty Bell” stopped in Utica. This bell was on the homeward stretch to Philadelphia—never to leave again. During this final trip seen by a fourth of all Americans as it stopped in 275 cities and towns, plus uncounted “slow downs.” This would be this famous bell’s only nation- wide trip, making it truly for the first time America’s national symbol. I expect my 16 year old father was one of the multitude of spectators flocking to Utica’s new Union Station. The bell also stopped during its late November trip through Central New York on a special built Pennsylvania Railroad car in Syracuse, Oneida, Rome, Utica, Herkimer, Amsterdam on its final leg back to Pennsylvania. Possibly some of your elderly readers may remember seeing this bell.

Readers can also date themselves. If you can remember hearing: the steam engine bell, farm dinner bell, cowbells, bells attached to cats, dogs, ducks, geese, goats, sheep, turkeys, sleigh bells, hand bells, wagon bells, store door bells, horse bells, mechanical tops, burglar alarm bells, fire engine bells, bells to keep birds out of the garden, musical bells, tea bells, door bells, town crier bells and the town bell.

”It’s not a bad life to be serenaded by birds and church bells.” Anonymous

Thankfully some bell reminders remain, like the church bells. Sadly, mostly unused now. For many generations church bells were indispensable to every community. From their exalted position watching over the life and times of the people below. When their Sunday obligations were finished, the church bell was often called upon to do other things. In a sense, it was a metallic town crier announcing everything from births, deaths to time, fires, major events including patriotic occasions, to name just a few.

Church bells were important in weather predicting. For example, in New England church bells were tolled in thunderstorms, to ward off dangerous lightning from striking the steeple. Church bells could also tell the weather; low pressure would change its tone. Crisp clearing indicated a high pressure normally associated with good weather. Wind direction could also affect the bell’s volume and tone. In one town in Maine, the bell was heard 11 miles away, when the normal range was 3 miles—6 miles with high pressure and a prevailing wind. Since thunder’s limit is 10 miles, the bell was known as “louder than thunder.”

Brookfield’s Baptist Church’s 1854, thousand pound bell is used only occasionally now, sometimes by Sunday School tots and occasionally by the organist’s page turner. Celebrating a wedding, and yes on occasion funerals. Farewell for the latter, and a happy long life together for the first.

Hobie Morris is a Brookfield resident and simple country man.

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