Chimes of the Times

Removal of Courthouse bell
prompts interest in other bells

Madison has several interesting bells
that have unique histories

By Konnie McCollum
Staff Writer

(August 2009) – When the 3,118-pound bell was lowered from atop the Jefferson County Courthouse and onto Madison’s Main Street in the aftermath of the May 20 fire, dozens of people gathered for several hours to take their first look at it. Some took photos of the bell, which had never been seen by today’s generation.
The bell, forged in Cincinnati in 1864, was placed atop the courthouse around 1869 and for many years rang on the hour. But for the past several years, the clock mechanism had been broken and stored in the courthouse basement.
The courthouse bell had gone silent and forgotten. Now that bell has been placed into storage, awaiting the day when it can be cleaned and possibly placed back into use.
The brief public appearance of the courthouse bell has since sparked renewed interest by local historians in other bells around Madison. For many decades, bells, such as the old courthouse treasure, have played a major role in the social and communication network of Madison’s citizens. These bells have alerted residents to fires, weddings, town celebrations and holidays. They have tolled to honor fallen war heroes and old friends. Many of those bells remain housed in churches, firehouses and museums. Some have continued to ring and can be heard sounding their message to those who stop and listen.
The history of bells extends back almost to the dawn of civilization, when crude metallic objects were sounded to ward off evil spirits, to alter the weather, or to mark festive occasions.

Mark Cash & Julie Berry

Photos by Don Ward

Jefferson County Commissioners
(from left) Mark Cash and Julie Berry
pose with the Jefferson County
Courthouse bell after it was removed
from the belltower on May 29. The
bell has been placed in storage
until it can be cleaned and
put on display.

At the Walnut Street Firehouse, Fire Co. No. 4, a bell forged in Cincinnati in 1858 is still rung for monthly meetings and to show respect at firefighters’ funerals. The bell has recently been refurbished to remove layers of paint and grime.
“There were layers and layers of silver paint on the bell,” said volunteer firefighter Frank Taff, who helped coordinate the refurbishing project. “The bell was originally nickel plated, so instead of trying to polish it, it may have been painted to look polished.”
The 36-inch diameter, 1,000-pound bell was cast by the Buckeye Bell Foundry, the same Cincinnati foundry that cast the courthouse bell.
The Buckeye Foundry was originally the G.W. Coffin Bell Foundry but was sold and operated by E.W. Vanduzen & C.T. Tift between 1866 and 1891. In 1891, the name was changed to The Vanduzen & Tift Co., and finally in 1894, changed to The E.W. Vanduzen Co., which operated until it closed in 1951. It was one of the seven largest producers of bronze bells in the United States during its heyday.
Unlike the courthouse bell that was cast in iron, the firehouse bell is 100 percent bronze, which is a mixture of 80 percent copper and 20 percent tin.
“Many larger bells are cast of iron and do not have a good tone; bells cast of bronze have great tone,” explained Taff. He said the firehouse’s bell was originally cast as a musical bell for Howard Hinds, a plantation owner in Mississippi. Hinds was murdered in 1864 during an argument at his home. The bell was never delivered, and by the start of the American Civil War, it was still at the Ohio foundry. The Walnut Street firehouse bought the ornate bell for $710 in 1874.
“Had the bell been delivered to Mississippi during the war, it would most likely have been melted down,” said Taff.

Madison Railroad Station Bell

Photo by Konnie McCollum

The Madison
Railroad Station
bell was cracked
by an employee
when it was being
rung too hard.

From 1874 to 1933, the bell hung in an ornate bell tower at the firehouse but was then placed in a steel tower. In the early 1960s, it was moved to the “doghouse” on top of the firehouse, where it was not viewable. Currently, it hangs on a special frame and sits in the firehouse. Taff and other volunteer firefighters hope to see it displayed for the community in a new cupola atop the firehouse.
“My hope is to see it get put back on the firehouse for the community to view, but we would have to get specific donations for such a project. We cannot use firefighting funds for it,” said Taff.
All of the Madison firehouses, except for No. 6 on the hilltop, still have their historic bells, many of which can be seen hanging in their towers. North Madison No. 5 Fire Co.’s bell is on permanent loan from the Madison Consolidated School Corp.
According to research records at the Jefferson County Historical Society’s Research Library, it was originally cast in 1889 by the Buckeye Foundry. For many years, up to 1906, it was used by the Upper Seminary School, where Eggleston Elementary is now located. It was stored at a glue factory up until the firehouse acquired it in 1953.
Up until the early 1970s, the fire companies used a special code of bell tones and ring numbers to alert firefighters and citizens to the location of fires. “People would listen to the tone and count the number of strikes to figure out where to go, “said Bob Thomas, a research historian for the Jefferson County Historical Society’s Research Library. “Each firehouse had its own bell tone, and people knew which tone matched each firehouse.”
For decades, every day at 6 a.m. churchgoers at St. Mary’s, now the Prince of Peace, would listen to the bells announce the start of the day and the call to worship service.
The bells were installed in 1860 and remain today. Each of the four bells at the church has a name, which was common for church bells. The largest bell is St. Joseph, the second is St. Anne, the third is Marie Angela, and the smallest bell is Gabriel.
At St. Michael the Archangel Church, now owned by Historic Madison Inc., there were also bells that announced the news of the church and community. The largest of the St. Michael’s bells was named Gabriele Anne, the second was Raphael Joachin, and the smallest was Joseph Patrick, according to research documents. There is a fourth bell, but its name was not mentioned in the documents.
Karl Eaglin, 61, remembers ringing the bells each morning at St. Mary’s when he was in eighth grade. His father “volunteered” him for the job.
“It was dark and scary up in the belfry. There were actually bats up there and, of course, I was afraid of ghosts and the hunchback,” he said, laughing. “But I thought I was so important.”

Richard Dickie

Photo by Konnie McCollum

Richard Dickie plays the tubular
chiming bells at Christ
Episcopal Church in Madison.

He said there were notes attached to the ropes of each bell with instructions on them as to how to ring them. “I rode the ropes up and down as the bells rang,” he said.
Taff was also a young bell ringer for his Trinity United Methodist Church, which still has its historic bell that reportedly came from a shipyard and was originally used to summons workers to their jobs.
“When you are a kid, being in a church all alone when it is dark is bad enough,” he recalled. “But the creaky steps leading up to the belfry and the bats were really scary.”
He said he had constantly been cautioned against pulling the rope too hard, but he “did it anyway, and flipped that bell over many times.” “Then I had to climb up even higher and turn it back over,” he said.
Richard Dickie is the church historian and official bell ringer for Christ Episcopal Church. There is a unique bell system at the church that was installed in 1905. There was an earlier bell, cast in 1853, at the church, but it cracked on Easter Sunday in 1903. It was replaced in 1905 with the large bell that still is used today for worship, weddings, funerals and community events.
The set of 15 chiming bells was made by Walter Durfee and Co. of Providence, R.I. According to Dickie, there are only six sets of the bells left in the country, and Christ Episcopal Church’s set is the only one that still works.
I’ve been ringing the bells for service for more than 10 years,” said Dickie, who is also a church historian. During services at the church and special occasions, Dickie uses levers attached to the tubular chiming bells to ring out hymns.
“For years the bells weren’t used, and I began playing them because I thought that was unfortunate,” he said.

Original Fire Co. No. 4 Bell

Photo by Konnie McCollum

This ornate bell was
made in 1858 in
Cincinnati and later
purchased by the
Walnut Street
Fire Co. No. 4.

Schools throughout the community also used bells to ring in the day for students and teachers and to alert them to any disasters, community events and celebrations.
The bell tower at Historic Eleutherian College, located in Lancaster, Ind., just north of Madison, still houses its original cast iron bell. The bell, carried to the school by ox and cart, was forged by the J.A. Kelley, Franklin Brass and Bell Foundry in Madison.
The college, with strong roots in abolition, was involved with the Underground Railroad and served as the first stop leading north from Madison. Teachers and students helped to hide fugitive slaves being educated at the college before they moved further north.
Jae Breitweiser, president of Eleutherian College Inc., said that the bell was rung for church, school and special village events.
“I have no doubt that the bell rung loud and long when the Civil War ended,” she said.
Today, visitors to the historic college are encouraged to ring the bell. “We noticed that every single time we let someone ring that bell, they smile,” she laughed.
The Railroad Station Museum at the Jefferson County Historical Society is home to an important bell in Madison’s history, the Station Bell. Cast at the Garret Foundry of Cincinnati, it was originally installed in the cupola of the newly constructed passenger depot in 1849 but then spent almost a century traveling to various sites throughout the community.
The upper part of the bell is decorated with a frieze of allegorical figures that represent the progress of the world in art, letters and transportation. There is a crack in the bell that legend said was caused in the early 1870s by longtime railroad employee William Smith. He was ringing it one day when a passenger asked him why the bell was rung a particular way. During the explanation, he accidentally gave the rope an extra tug, which caused the bell to turn over. The impact of the clapper caused it to crack.
For many years, the bell was rung half an hour and then five minutes before the departure of passenger trains. The bell was the warning for passengers to get to the station. In the early days of railroading, the timetables were not a reliable means of learning when the trains actually ran.
It was also used to sound the hour through the day and night, but that practice was stopped when the company stopped placing a night watchman at the depot.
In the 1880s, the bell was removed from the cupola and shipped east to Richmond, Ind., to the estate of a railroad superintendent. It was later displayed at the Richmond railroad station.
In 1916, the bell was returned to Madison and placed on display next to the railroad station. By 1935, it was moved to City Hall on West Street, where it was displayed on the front lawn until 1944, when it went into storage at Clifty Falls State Park.
In 1953, the bell was placed on the Lanier Mansion lawn on an old millstone, and in 1991 it was given by the state of Indiana to the Jefferson County Historical Society.
An ornate bell stands at the corner of Lytle Park on West Street. It was cast in Madison in 1851 by J. Garratt and Sons for the Lower Seminary School, now the site of Lydia Middleton Elementary. It was moved to the park in the 1960s.
Numerous other historic bells can be found high in lofty towers or tucked away in dark belfries throughout the community, and they all have their unique, yet connected stories about life as it used to be. These bells add yet another layer to the rich historic fabric of a well-preserved heritage.

Back to August 2009 Articles.



Copyright 1999-2015, Kentuckiana Publishing, Inc.

Pick-Up Locations Subscribe Staff Advertise Contact Submit A Story Our Advertisers Columnists Archive Area Links Area Events Search our Site Home Monthly Articles Calendar of Events Kentucky Speedway Madison Chautauqua Madison Ribberfest Madison Regatta