During the first quarter of the 19th century there were several bell foundries in eastern New England, the most famous of which was started by Paul Revere in Boston and continued by his son. At least 398 bells were made by the Revere's, to be hung for the most part in church steeples throughout New England, but as far south as Georgia.
THE FIRST BELL
There was a foundry in Pawtucket at the same time, owned by Abraham Wilkinson. He gave the first bell hung in the belfry on the common. It weighed 800 pounds and was said to have the faculty, unlike good singers generally, of being heard with peculiar distinctness in damp and dismal weather. Like the bells which successively replaced it, this bell was suspended on a yoke which swung down as the bell swung up in ringing. When the bell was first tried out, Rev. Mr. Nelson was an interested observer, and met with a distressing accident. As the big yoke swung down close to a beam of the supporting structure, his hand, resting on the beam, was hit by the yoke and three of his fingers were amputated.
THE SECOND AND THIRD BELLS
The second bell was purchased by Benjamin Cargill and was made in the foundry of Major Holbrook. This one weighed 1300 pounds. There was a defect in it from the first, and after a time a crack developed. It was thrown from the belfry to the ground "e; without ceremony, and there were taken up of the fragments, scriptural basketfuls quote. These were carried to the foundry in East Medway, in accordance with an arrangement with the manager and enough metal was added to make a new bell supposed to weigh 2000 pounds. When taken down, it proved to weigh only 1775 pounds.
The new bell, when ready, was drawn over the road by cattle, and throngs were attracted to watch its passage through the quiet and uneventful villages. When rigging had been fixed for hoisting the bell to its place, the hands at Tifft and Whiting's jewelry shop, not far away on Broad Street, went over to the common and furnished the necessary power.
This bell served for about 30 years and then it too developed a crack. The bell remained in use, however, for some time while preparations were made for its replacement. The weird, doleful, wobbling sound it produced was graven on records of memory from which it can be re-called to this day. After the bell had been taken down, someone observed that the old bell's voice had become familiar to the inhabitants of the whole surrounding territory, and however paradoxical it might seem, had never ceased from its labor although always on a strike.
THE PRESENT BELL
John Stanley and Frank Barden were appointed by the society to secure a new bell. An invitation for subscriptions was met generously. The bell first considered, was a model weighing 2540 pounds. But the people by their liberal giving voted for the best that could be obtained and put in the space available. Accordingly, the Clinton H. Meneely Bell Company
of Troy, N.Y., by that time the leading bell makers in America, were given an order for a duplicate of what had been placed in important locations in several large cities, including Brookline, Portland, Albany, St. Louis, and San Francisco. When finished, the bell was found to weigh 3028 pounds, exclusive of yoke and accessories. After the first factory test, the makers wrote to the committee, declaring the tone to be " beautiful, perfect, just as rich as-any church could possibly desire." the cost, minus allowance for the 1775 pounds of metal contained in the former bell, was $553.56. The bell is composed of 22 percent tin and 78 percent copper, except that there are probably small traces of lead and other elements; for copper was not at that time refined as well as it is now. The inscription is "Glory to God in the highest."
INSTALLING THE BELL
Hoisting the bell became again a matter of community interest, and especially for the children in the school only a short distance up the street. Deacon French, Joseph G. Barden and John Stanley were in charge, Deacon French, a building contractor, was well versed in the art of staging and rigging. Mr. Barden had heavy tackle and teams of draft horses used for hauling the thousands of tons of coal required in those days for steam power in the factories as well as heating. Long sheds for storing the coal were located alongside tracks of the Attleboro Branch Railroad and near the passenger station on lower Washington Street. One of the teams of horses was a pair of beautiful big blacks that often attracted attention as they passed along the streets. These horses were hitched to the end of a long rope running down the common from heavy wooden block-and-fall rigging. Word was sent to the schoolrooms and all the children were dismissed to have a hand in the exciting work. The boys and men who grasped the rope, each adding his bit of strength to that of the powerful blacks Barney and Dick as they pulled the weight up. A crowd of people cheered as the bell reached the protruding timbers of a staging aloft and was gently rolled into the belfry. The cost to the society of installation was $43.65. The bell was rung from a corner of the main vestibule of the meeting house. The room in the tower off the gallery, from which the bell has been rung in later years, was then filled by the back part of the organ. Ropes for ringing and tolling ran close to the largest pipes and through the floor to the vestibule.
THE BELL USED AS A FIRE ALARM
Not long after the organ was moved from the gallery and tower, the town installed its first " Gamewell System" of fire alarm telegraph boxes. Permission was given to use the bell as the signal for the northern and central parts of the village. Heavy weights furnished power for working a separate hammer to ring the signals. Considerable jarring accompanied the operation of this machinery and to it was attributed extensive cracking of the plaster at various parts of the building. When the town pumping station offered the possibility of a steam whistle for the "North End," use of the bell as a fire alarm was discontinued. Extensive repairs to the plastering were one of the first steps in the restoration project of 1900.
HOW BELLS ARE RUNG
Proper care in maintenance and ringing are essential for getting the best tone and long life of a bell. Meticulous attention was given to the matter of handling the fine new bell. Deacon French saw to it that those who did the ringing were carefully instructed.
Some bells, especially sets of. chimes, are not arranged to swing, but are struck by pulling a tongue or hammer against the lip of the bell. Others are swung like a pendulum, through a limited 'arc. Still others are hung on a yoke which is on bearings so that the balanced assembly can be turned a full circle. The best sound of a large bell is obtained by swinging it to a position almost upside-down and holding it there while it hums. This method is known as "setting." A certain skill in timing, as well as some strength, is required to "set" a bell weighing more than a ton-and-a-half.
To permit setting of the bell in the church on the common, a wheel twenty feet or more in circumference has a groove in which the ringing rope lies. In the first years, there were said to be only two men who could properly ring and set the bell. Deacon French and the sexton, Mr.. Thompson, who was a carpenter in the employ of Bennett and French. Successors learned under their tutelage. For three decades, at least, correct ringing of the bell was as carefully observed as circumstances permitted.
THE ART HAS ITS DANGERS
During the first World War, the sexton was a conscientious man named Hamilton. One Thursday night brother Hamilton was unable to attend to his duties and sent a substitute to open the vestry and ring the bell for prayer meeting. With him came some children who watched proceedings with interest. The substitute had probably never seen anyone ring a bell of this size. When he got the bell swinging, he held on to the rope while the great wheel wound it up, and he was carried to the ceiling, hitting his head. Down to the floor, up again, down and up he went, never thinking to let go when his feet touched the floor. Meanwhile his observers seemed about to expire from glee at his predicament. No damage to the ceiling was discovered and no bones were broken by the substitute. This was very fortunate. This was not the only time when it was demonstrated that some experience is useful, not to say essential for avoiding danger, in this kind of musical performance.
THE RITUAL OF THE BELL
The time schedule for ringing the bell was likewise punctiliously observed so that some townspeople depended on it for setting their clocks. On Sunday morning at exactly nine o'clock, ringing of the bell reminded the inhabitants that the peculiar privileges of the Lords' Day had returned. At intervals of about two-and-a-half minutes for a period of just 15, the bell was rung and set. The joyous message was heard easily at long distances, for the holy calm of the Sabbath morning in those days was something it is hard for children of the present day to imagine and it is an experience one would devoutly wish they might have. At exactly 15 minutes before the time appointed for opening of the service of worship, the bell was similarly rung and set for ten minutes, and then tolled at half-minute intervals. Two strokes of the tolling hammer in succession marked the arrival of the hour. Instantly thereafter, the opening notes of the organ followed so softly as to be hardly audible, then gradually swelled as they merged into the voluntary chosen for the day. With equal precision, the preacher with dignity advanced to take his place on the platform behind the pulpit.
The bell also had its part in funeral services. These were generally held at home but were sometimes held in the church, as in the case of a member of the congregation who had been exceptionally well known in the community, and highly respected. At the close of the rites in the sanctuary, while the procession was forming and starting its slow progress towards the place of burial, the age of the departed was announced by the number of times the bell was tolled at intervals of about a quarter of a minute.
THE SISTER BELL
Fourteen years after the Baptist bell was installed, an equally fine bell came to North Attleboro-the first and largest of the set in St. Mary's Catholic Church. Many who heard the two bells instantly noted a close similarity in tone, it is explained by the fact that they were cast in the same foundry and from the same pattern. Not long after the bell was put into use at St. Mary's, an interesting phenomenon was noticed. Walking down the common when both bells were being rung, there are found spots at which there were recurrent periods of almost complete silence followed by loud sound. The opposite and almost equal waves from the two bells were canceling out each other at regular intervals.
In spite of the likeness in pitch and general character of tone a difference in quality and rhythm of the bells was recognized by sensitive ears. One of the clergy at St. Mary's noticed this difference, and on a Thursday evening, when the Baptist bell was being rung for prayer meeting, he came to inquire into the cause. In conversation, it quickly became apparent that the difference in the mounting and in the manner of ringing, rather than in the bells themselves, accounted for the different musical results.
The bell was silent for nearly 30 years due to the rotting of the support timbers. In 2003, these supports were replaced and the large wheel re-furbished, so that once again the bell rings out, across the town, announcing the Sunday service.
A fine bell is in truth a musical instrument and reference to this fourth bell might well have appeared among the pages where organs and music are mentioned. Perhaps a few readers will be interested in facts of a technical nature concerning the present bell. The pitch is E-flat according to 'the "concert pitch" which was the standard in use at the time of its casting. The present measurement of pitch is somewhat different.
The musical quality of a bell is due, of course, as of all musical instruments, to the number of harmonics or partials-sound waves of other frequency than that of the dominating pitch-and their relative strengths. By "pitch" of a bell is meant the tone one seems to hear when the bell is struck. Immediately thereafter, there is heard a tone about a sixth lower, which continues to hum and is known as the hum tone. There are other partials that may be distinguished by musical cars, -a fifth and an octave above the strike tone. There are also partials in the relation of five, six, etc.
Studies by a physicist of Smith College brought one surprising result. Instruments used in analyzing the sound indicated that the "strike" tone does not actually exist. The phrase "seems to hear," which was used above, was used advisedly. The conclusion of the acoustics expert was that the tone an octave higher than the strike pitch is subjectively lowered an octave by the hearer. The vibrations of frequencies about a sixth below the strike pitch, a fifth and an octave higher, etc., were recorded as actual components of the sound, and the richness of a particular bell was found to depend much on their relative characteristics. The results just mentioned were obtained from Meneely bells of the same size and pattern as the one that has been heard for the last 70 years in this town.