Town Appeals For Bell-ringer

July 31, 1995|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,Eastern Shore Bureau of The Sun

ST. MICHAELS -- For most of the past century, daily life in this small Talbot County town was punctuated by the town bell. Its peals summoned workers to the docks in the morning, to lunch at noon and back to work an hour later, and finally, signaled the end of the working day.

The bell fell silent in 1984 because there was no one to ring it. It's been missed, though, and now some townsfolk would like to bring it back.

"It was a nice sound," recalled Victor MacSorley, president of the St. Michaels Town Commission. "When I first came to St. Michaels, you knew when it rang, it was time to go home. . . It's an interesting sort of tradition, and I miss it."

Prodded by a citizen who offered to ring it on weekends, Commissioner Fred Mowbray proposed the bell's return this month. The other four commissioners agreed it should ring again, Monday through Saturday, four times a day.

Now they have to find someone to ring it.

The last ringer was Erin Clifford, who kept the job through most of her high school years.

"That was a long time ago," Ms. Clifford said last week, recalling her four years as bell-ringer. "I came home from school one day, and my grandmother said, 'I got a job for you,' and I said, 'OK.' "

She earned $25 a month for ringing the bell, she said. But the money wasn't what persuaded her to take the job.

"I remembered an old man doing it, Mr. Sewell," she said. "I thought it was pretty neat." So she went to St. Mary's Square in the middle of town four times a day, unlocked the cabinet that housed the rope and rang the bell.

She started when she was 12, and stopped "right before I got my [driver's] license" at 16.

"I can't do it any more," she said. "I had to stop when I started working." And her two children are too young to do it.

But the bell's history suggests that a ringer will be found.

One ringer who preceded Ms. Clifford was Irma Harper. Her husband's family goes back 10 generations in St. Michaels, and she and her husband, Walter, lived for a number of years on St. Mary's Square, where the bell has been for three decades.

They shared bell-ringing responsibilities with several other square residents, she recalled.

"We had a mutual sort of pact that whoever was home rang the bell. . . . We did not get paid. We considered it a public duty, and we took it very seriously."

Mrs. Harper is among those who would like to see the bell come back, although she no longer lives on St. Mary's Square.

"It's part of the town," she said. And she should know -- a former accountant who is an avid genealogist, she has researched the bell's history extensively.

The bell was cast in 1842; the date is on it. The foundry isn't known, but Mrs. Harper said the bell was owned by the Willey family, to whom her husband is related. Edward Willey was a ship carpenter and shipbuilder.

Mrs. Harper's research indicates the bell passed from Mr. Willey to A. B. Harrison, and in 1892, town minutes show payment of $94.45 to one William J. Fairbank "for the hauling and ringing of the bell."

The minutes show that Mr. Fairbank was paid $24 annually for the next three years, but in 1895, commissioners decided to save the money and silenced the bell.

Then as now, however, the bell was missed.

In May 1896, a petition was signed by 117 citizens (a sizable number, Mrs. Harper points out, because the town's population was less than 800) asking commissioners to pay to have the bell rung. Mr. Harrison gave the bell to the town, and Mr. Fairbank was given a new contract that spanned the years from 1898 to 1904.

In 1906, a Rev. J. H. Willey of Brooklyn, N.Y., set up a fund to pay the annual fee so the bell could ring during his lifetime.

Although the fund ran out after his death, various citizens rang the bell almost continuously until 1956, when it fell silent again.

Again, the townspeople missed it and went to their elected officials. The commissioners moved the bell to St. Mary's Square in 1957, and the citizens of the square -- including Mrs. Harper and her husband -- kept it ringing four times a day.

It originally was rung at 6 a.m., noon, 1 p.m. and 6 p.m., Mrs. Harper recalled, but as the working day shrank, the bell's evening peals sounded at 5 p.m.

It marked more than mere time, she said.

"When the town bell sounded at other than regular times, it was an alarm," Mrs. Harper said.

It summoned the citizenry to help fight a fire, and offered a bearing point for watermen when the Miles River was thick with fog.

"If it's going to be rung, it should be rung systematically," she said.

Commissioner Don Healy is seeking a high school student to ring the bell for free, Mr. MacSorley said, and will report to the commission when it meets early next month.

"It adds a nice touch," Mr. Mowbray said. "I think it adds something a little out of the ordinary."

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