Last Bell Hasn't Tolled For Glen Burnie's Mcshane Foundry

June 26, 1991|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff writer

One of America's last two church bell makers wears high-top Reeboks,earrings and a beeper. And he worries about the future of the American church bell industry.

In acid-washed jeans and gelled hair, William R. Parker III works with his father, William R. Parker Jr., at adying craft in a dusty foundry that is the McShane Bell Foundry Company Inc. in Glen Burnie. They are the only church bell makers left inthe United States.

"I don't know if there's going to be much demand for this in a couple of years," said Bill, the 22-year-old. "It would be a shame if there weren't."

"If this business ever closes, that's going to be it," said Parker, 45.

The two men ply the ancient craft in a dimly lighted room half the size of a basketball court. Their tools and their methods have not changed since Henry McShane, an immigrant from Dundalk, Ireland, produced the first bells in his Baltimore plumbing-supply foundry in 1856.

They still build the molds the old way, witha mixture of sand and horse manure. They could use synthetic materials instead of horse manure to bind the sand, "but then you lose the heritage of the company," Parker said.

The same goes for the woodenforms, or "sweeps" used to shape the molds. They're the same ones that Henry McShane used, the same forms that have been used to cast more than 200,000 church bells since the foundry opened.

McShane bells ring from towers across the United States, from St. Joseph's Churchin Los Angeles to St. Peter's in Lewiston, Maine.

McShane peals are heard in Hankow, China and Tokyo, Japan; Kingston, Jamaica and Midmay, Canada.

So faithful to tradition is the McShane foundry that the Smithsonian Institution has asked Parker if he might relinquish some of the equipment for a permanent exhibit on American bell-making.Parker had to decline, saying he needs the stuff to make bells. The foundry is not yet ready for the dustbin of history.

The company still turns out 15 to 20 new bells in a busy year. And the men spend much of their time restoring old bells to new luster or putting electric mechanisms in bells that were rung by hand.

For at least 30 years that Parker knows of, McShane has carried the torch alone for American church bell manufacturing. There are firms that turn out small bells for boats, but the world's church bell business resides in Glen Burnie and in Europe.

In the 1940s, McShane had 90 employees in Baltimore. Now, father and son handle all the work on bells up to 700 pounds. For larger bells -- and the company can make a bell up to 7,000 pounds -- they call on two more men to help pour the molten tin andcopper into the mold. The company also has four sales people stationed across the country, plus a free-lance bell designer and a Peabody Conservatory graduate who helps tune the bells to precise pitch. One grinds a bell on the bottom edge to raise the pitch, on the inside surface to lower the pitch.

The other day the father and son were getting three new bronze bells ready to ship to St. John the Baptist Church in New Freedom, Pa. One by one they hoisted the bells off the floor with a steel hook attached by chain to a steel beam.

They tested each electric mechanism that slaps each bronze clapper against theinside of the bell. And each bell rang a clear note against the cement floor and concrete walls of the foundry.

The three bells have been in the works since February. That's when the Parkers started building the molds into which they would pour the molten bronze. Layer bythin layer of sand-manure mix, they built up the cores of the molds.The mixture also was applied to a cast iron "cope," a bell-shaped form that fits over the core and shapes the outside of the bell.

Each layer of sand is given a final coat of smooth black graphite. The inscription is cut into the graphite-sand surface inside the cope and emerges in raised bronze letters on the finished bell.

The space between core and cope forms the thickness of the bell. That's where the liquid metal -- 80 percent copper, 20 percent tin -- is poured at 1,950 degrees Fahrenheit.

The bells bound for Pennsylvania were cast about two weeks ago. They've been polished to a sheen and coated with a clear finish. Each bears the distinct 4-3-2 line pattern that marks all McShane bells.

The Parker family started in the bell business with Parker's father, William R. Parker. He ran a machine shop next to the McShane foundry on Federal Street. He bought into the bell business in 1935, Parker said.

The foundry lost its lease on Federal Street and moved in 1979 to a small strip of industrial buildings on Arundel Corporation Road in Glen Burnie. They had planned to stay only about six months, but "we've been so busy we couldn't move," Parker said.

Parker, who has been with the company full time since hegraduated high school in 1965, has run the foundry since his father died in 1980.

"I've been working on bells for so many years, I just don't know what else I would do," Parker said.

Asked if he planned to carry on the family tradition, Bill shrugged.

"I guess, I don't know. I'm going to night school now," said Bill, who is studying criminal justice at Anne Arundel Community College. "It depends on how things are going in a couple of years. It would just be a shame if a business like this could just die out."

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