United Methodist Church Bell To Ring Again

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Milliken family donation aids historic Hampton church

By Liz Premo

Hampton Union, July 8, 2014

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]

Methodist Church bell

HAMPTON — Thanks to some very heavy lifting and a local family's generosity, the broken bell housed in the steeple of the Hampton United Methodist Church (HUMC) is being repaired, and after decades of silence is expected to ring again before summer's end.

"I'm not sure when it last rang," said Dave Dow, chairman of the HUMC board of trustees. "I have been in the church 35 years and I have never heard it ring."

He estimated it was likely "in the '60s" that the bell ceased to ring, adding that alternative methods were employed when occasions called for the sound of bells.

"For a while they used a speaker and played bells ringing," explained Dow. "They stopped doing that at some point."

Interestingly enough, the historic church did not always have a bell. Originally constructed in 1848 on a lot at the corner of Anns Lane and Lafayette Road, the building was moved south in 1881 to its present location, where it underwent repairs and remodeling.

"The bell was installed at that time, in the steeple," said Dow, adding that it was typically rung using a rope attached to the assembly, causing the bell to swing on an axle whenever the rope was pulled.

Over the years, various other structural changes were made, including a major $44,000 expansion project in the late 1950s. It was sometime within the following decade or so that the bell stopped ringing.

Dow said any conclusions to be drawn regarding how the bell broke are "all speculation at this point. We don't know how it happened or when it happened. It could have been a person who rang the bell too vigorously."

The main concern, he added, was that "it was broke and we couldn't ring it."

The good news is that with a generous gift bestowed by the Milliken family, "we saw the opportunity to get it fixed."

"When Russell and Roberta Milliken passed away, the family requested that we refurbish the bell," said Dow, who was good friends with the couple. "We're doing it with those funds, and we're going to dedicate it to them."

Dow predicted there will be a dedication ceremony at some point later this summer to celebrate the restoration of the bell in memory of the Millikens.

One possible reason the bell has been silent all these years could be structural in nature.

"It's a horrible place to get to," said Dow, explaining how access to the belfry needs to be made using a series of ladders situated alongside the inside wall leading to the steeple.

Those structural limitations did not deter workers from Mid-Maine Restoration (MMR) in Boothbay, Maine, who were onsite early last month to perform the delicate task of removing the broken cast iron bell from the belfry in order to transport it to Mid-Coast Machine, also in Boothbay.

Methodist Church bell

"We used a series of come-alongs and block-and tackle to move the bell inside the belfry," said MMR's Joe McSwain, explaining how a come-along is "a gizmo with a hook; like a hand-driven winch with a handle that ratchets. The ones we use are big industrial quality, rated for three tons."

"It was quite an event, to see a 2,000 pound bell come out of a steeple," said Dow, noting how the equipment used "slowly let the bell swing out of the steeple until the crane could pick it up."

Mid-Coast Machine is in charge of "fixing the cast iron yoke" that supports the bell, said McSwain. "It broke in a couple of places; they are welding that back together. The yoke is missing an axle on the wheel side (so) they have to machine a new one."

The location of the missing axle is still a mystery to all concerned.

"We never found it anywhere in our travels," said McSwain.

Admittedly, there was some initial concern regarding whether the project could actually proceed once the damage had been completely revealed.

"I wasn't sure when I first looked at this assembly if this could be repaired," said McSwain, who took photos of the damaged unit and showed them to Mike Tomacelli of Mid-Coast to see if it could be saved. Fortunately, "he seemed to think it could be," said McSwain.

While Mid-Coast repairs the bell, McSwain is managing the project to repair the components supporting the bell. MMR is building the stanchion base upon which the entire bell assembly is set upon, as well as a new bell wheel which McSwain said was "far too gone to be serviceable."

McSwain is currently crafting the new bell wheel out of white oak, which he said is impervious to rot and insects and is a better choice over red oak. Pressure-treated southern yellow pine will be used to build the stanchion — "the base the whole thing sits on," he said. "I have most of the materials machined; it's just a matter of finishing that up and the assembly."

As the general contractor for the project, "our role is mostly ancillary; it's secondary to the actual work on the bell," said McSwain. "Mostly what we do in this case is facilitate the removal of the bell so it can go to a machinist and have the necessary repairs wrought. Once it's back together again we will bring it back and put it back up in the tower."

Indeed, some structural improvements are being made to the steeple as part of the overall project. McSwain and company had to remove the belfry's louvers and enlarge the opening (now protected by a blue tarp) in order to accommodate the equipment needed to remove the bell and its components.

"I took a look," said Dow. "The room is completely empty. They tore everything out."

As a machinist who has been involved in many successful church steeple restoration projects, McSwain has his own ideas on how the bell ended up needing such major attention.

"It was probably a combination of wear on the components, and possibly somebody being a little bit overzealous with the rope," he said. "Since they are on an axle and run on a wheel you can actually flip the whole assembly over. It's hard to say. These things are so big and monolithic; they will sometimes fail from their own weight. It happens."

When workers from MMR return with the bell later this summer, they will complete the interior work in the belfry a day or two prior to the reinstallation of the bell and its assembly. Then, the entire bell-moving process will once again be conducted, but this time in reverse, according to McSwain.

Methodist Church bell
Dow said that once everything is back in place and the bell is fully operational, it will be rung whenever the event calls for it, especially for the dedication ceremony in memory of the Millikens.

"We'll ring the bell for weddings (and) funerals, and maybe at beginning of church on Sunday mornings," he said. "It will ring for appropriate occasions, whatever they might be. It (will) be nice to hear the bell again. It's going to be exciting."

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