'A lost art' in Glen Burnie Bells: McShane Bell Foundry, the only large U.S. Western-style bell maker, has been manufacturing bells since 1856. They toll in 50 states and seven foreign countries.

September 26, 1997|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

The cluttered, cavernous workshop in Glen Burnie hardly looks impressive.

The Michelob poster girls pinned up on sooty walls, smudged wooden and cast-iron equipment strewn everywhere -- the whole get-up says small-time.

But from McShane Bell Foundry have come more than 300,000 huge bells since 1856, bells that now ring in churches, city halls, statehouses and fire stations throughout the 50 states and in at least seven foreign countries.

The foundry, at 100 Arundel Corporation Road, is the only large Western-style bell maker in the United States, one of about seven in the world. Western-style bells are rung with a clapper inside while oriental bells are struck from the outside.

Among the foundry's more famous handiwork are the 7,000-pound bell that graces Baltimore's City Hall, the bells at Hawaii's Pearl Harbor Memorial chapel and Liberty Bell replicas in Portland, Ore., and Wilmington, Del.

"This is a lost art," said owner William Parker Jr. "It's something I'd like to see continue."

Henry McShane, who named Dundalk after his Irish birthplace about 100 years ago, founded the company in Baltimore in 1856. The company moved to Glen Burnie in 1979.

In its heyday in the 1880s, the firm employed 90 people. As demand for big custom-made bells waned, that number has dwindled to six workers today.

They are kept busy refurbishing bells and wiring them to ring on their own. Making new bells constitutes only about 40 percent of their work.

The company plies its antiquated trade with tools that date to its first year. The mammoth cast-iron molds used to make 100-pound to 4,000-pound bells and the wooden "sweeps" -- half-bell-shapes used to mold the insides of bells -- are Henry McShane's originals.

They're valued at more than $250,000, and the company still uses them because replacements would be too expensive, Parker said. "We'd be out of business if something happened to them," he said.

A six-alarm fire in 1946 almost accomplished that, said Parker. By luck, the equipment was stored in a safe and survived.

Two other U.S. foundries folded years ago, said William Wakeland, a bell enthusiast who lectures about handbells at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. The cost of equipment and the small market make staying in business difficult.

"Even in England and France, these companies are somewhat hand-held by the government," Wakeland said. "They're considered to be national treasures and they get into financial trouble. They don't sell enough, and there are not many places that can afford them, so they are subsidized to some degree."

A McShane bell costs from $3,696 for a 100-pounder to $13,310 for a half-ton model. The foundry can make bells as large as 7,000 pounds, but most are closer to 1,000 pounds, Parker said.

The durability of bells also has kept demand for new ones down, Wakeland said.

"Bells will way, way, way outlast you," he said. "In Boston, they're still ringing the bells that Paul Revere rang in 1750."

Parker, 50, hopes the company his father acquired in 1935 will outlast him. There's a good chance of that: His son, William Parker III, 28, is the company's vice president.

About the company

Henry McShane founded McShane Bell Foundry in Baltimore in 1856. The company reached its peak production in the late 19th century. In 1935, the company was sold to William Parker, whose son runs it today. The company moved to Glen Burnie in 1979.

Pub Date: 9/26/97

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