RING OF BELLS
fading from American countryside

 

by Lewis G. Decker
Fulton County Historian

This article appeared in The Sunday Leader-Herald on January 3, 1999, page 8A.  It is transcribed here by permission of the Leader Herald and also by Mr. Decker's son, Randy Decker.  The honored historian, Lewis Decker, passed away in May, 2000.  Mr. Decker was renowned for sharing and preserving wonderful treasures such as the topic of this story - as well as reminding us just how precious these treasures are and how quickly modern thinking can make them disappear and destroy centuries of history!

Avid and dedicated volunteer, Allyn Hess Perry, transcribed this article.  Many thanks!


Bells played an important part of everyday life in our city and county's past but in our present day and age they seem to be fading from the scene. Remembrance of bells comes to mind with the holiday season and the crisp snowy days of winter. This time of year brings out the bell ringers with the Salvation Army kettles, reminding us to share with those in need and at Christmas, church bells peal out in rejoicing over the birth of the Christ child.

Earlier generations learned at an early age that bells gave warning; schools possessed bells that rang just prior to the morning classes, warning students to get inside and be ready for the attendance report for the day. Our city and rural schools had a bell perched on the roof of the school and if the little one room schoolhouses did not possess such, the teacher could be seen at the doorway of the school, ringing a hand-held bell, serving the same purpose and calling students back in after recess and lunch.

In the horse and buggy era, during the winter months when the snow appeared, sleighs and cutters were taken out of storage and became the mode of travel; how proud the owner would be, as well as the horse, if he had a set of bells for his rig. You could tell which neighbor was coming down the road by the different tones and jingles of his bells and in addition they warned pedestrians on the city's busy streets of the approaching sleighs.

The early horse drawn trolleys had a bell attached to the roof above the operator, who would reach up and shake the rope just before he was to leave, to warn would be passengers of his departure. Later when the electrified trolleys came onto the scene, a more pronounced bell was attached to the trolley, giving a clanging sound, sharp and loud, warning the horse drawn vehicles to get off the tracks.

This brings us to the remembrance of the many delivery wagons in the city, each seeming to have their own distinctive bell or signal. These bells remained in later years on the mechanized vehicles as well. I can recall a bakery wagon that used to travel the Orchard Street section of the city and the operator would strike the bell on the dash with a small metal hammer. There was the junk dealer with his one horse wagon; attached above his head was stretched a rope and dangling from it was an old cow bell that clanked away as he came down the street, announcing his presence collecting newspapers and rags. Many I'm sure, remember old Bill Strait with his push cart on Main Street. Bill didn't have a bell but everyone that approached him on the street would peep their horn to irritate him and he would give off his usual profanity.

We can not forget the large steam engines on the old Fonda, Johnstown and Gloversville Railroad line. Perched above the engine was the shinny bell. It too served as a warning device to announce departures and at crossings but eventually it gave way to the steam whistle. One of these F. J. G. R. R. engine bells today graces the church tower of the Little Log Cabin Church on Progress Road in the town of Mayfield. This bell came from off the early steam engine Number 12 of the old Fonda, Johnstown and Gloversville Railroad and today is preserved and used to call church service. (This Log Cabin Community Church is presently being considered by the New York State Division of Historic Trust and Preservation, to be put on the National Register of Historic sites.)

The most famous and remembered bell in the city of Gloversville, I would say, was the bell that occupied the bell tower in old City Hall on Main Street, affectionately known by "old-timers" as Gloversville's Big Ben. Big Ben served many purposes during its existence, but primarily as an alarm bell, when it resounded down the city streets with its announcement of a fire or city catastrophe. It called the fire men and the public to the old Gross Hotel fire in Bleecker Street Square, the Alvord House fire, and many other as well as false alarms. Prior to the bell being placed in City Hall, arrangements had to be made with the Congregational Church on East Fulton Street where its separate wooden church bell tower provided a bell. If a fire occurred, the city official had to look up the Sexton of the church to get inside to ring the bell. Ray Mowers (a former editor of the old Leader) in reminiscing on old Gloversville, recalled that down the street from city hall in the old Kasson Block, Harry Dillion ran a jewelry and watch repair business. Mowers further stated "On the wall, in back of the watch-repair bench in a front window, was the telegraph key on which Charles Ives sent five electric impulses to Big Ben every morning at nine o'clock to signal standard time. How many times I stood there to watch him." From what Mr. Mower has said you could set your watches with Big Ben.

One hundred years ago this year, the news media had the public in a frenzy over the "Sinking of the US Maine" in Havana Harbor and the public was demanding that Spain be punished, the battle cry across the Nation was "To Hell With Spain, Remember the Maine." When war was finally declared, news reached Gloversville and Big Ben was summoned to announce this event. The public knew what this meant and church bells and factory whistles chimed in across the city. A station agent in Mayfield, hearing the sounds and commotion off in Gloversville, telephoned in to find out what was going on. It was said the rejoicing in the city and the Big Ben bell could be heard in Albany that day. (It seems the Gloversville Chief of Police was on the telephone with the Chief of Police in Albany and he held the receiver up for him to hear the commotion).

Big Ben sounded as well when our veterans returned from this war and for the home coming of our First World War vets but I have been told that by the Second World War, Big Ben had met its demise. Sirens were taking the place of the fire alarm and other church bells were tolling the hour. It was decided to remove the bell in a patriotic gesture and donate it to the scrap drive of World War Two, Big Ben again served the public domain.

I recall one bell in Gloversville that occupied the Church Tower of St. Frances DeSales Church on Pine Street. As a young boy I attended the parochial school behind the Church on Third Street. Each morning before classes we were escorted to the church for morning Mass. Father Winkelman was the priest and he would greet us at the door of the church, right after ringing the bell from a rope in the round vestibule, to the right of the church. I can see him now pulling on that rope and straightening his cap, but the most outstanding part of this was Father Winkelman had a beautiful Scotch Collie dog named Jackie who used to seat himself outside the door of the church and as the bell rang; Jackie would chime in with his howling.

Preserved and housed on display in the Fulton County Museum on Kingsboro Avenue in Gloversville is the bell that graced the old Kingsboro Academy that once stood on the site of the present day museum. As you enter the museum, you step into the entrance of the front door and imbedded in the brick is the date of the present building and when it was built. At the rear entrance to the building and as well, imbedded in that entrance way, is the date of the old academy. Stepping out the back door of the present building you would be entering the old wooden academy that once stood on this lot. The old bell in later years was housed and used at the Woodworth Lake Scout Reservation and once the County Museum was established it was returned to its old home and historic site and is part of the present day museum's display.

Up in the town of Bleecker there was a migration of a number of German families in the 1840s and 50s, who brought with them their religion. Here on a high hill they established the Roman Catholic Church of St. Joseph; considered in our County of Fulton, as the first established Catholic Church. The church bell was described as having wonderful sound to it that could be heard across the country side. It would notify the local residents of the priest in residence and church services. It also took on a mournful sound when a deceased member passed away. It was the custom to toll the bell for each of the deceased years of age.

I became interested in this old bell and was able to trace it down its present location. When the Catholic Church in Bleecker ceased to exist, the bell was taken to Colonie on Route Five where it was placed in the Church of St. Clara's. In recent years St. Clara's Church was rebuilt and the bell ended up on a concrete pedestal in the backyard of St. Clara's rectory.

Another incident I recall that involves a bell chanced to happen when I was attending Northville Central High School. It seems that in the village of Northville it had become a custom for each generation to out do the past with some stunt during Halloween. One favorite tradition at that time was to ring the Presbyterian Church bell in the village. Knowing this, by the time my generation came on the scene, it was pretty well guarded to prevent this from happening. Previous stunts went so far as gaining access to the bell tower and tying a clothes line rope to the bell and stretching it up the hill in back of the church. When it became our turn to come upon a scheme, I borrowed my father's old Chevy (that was the year of the vacuum shift) and a group of us proceed to Sacandaga Park, where, perched on the roof of the old Railroad station was a bell (used as a fire bell in the past). With much effort we were able to dismantle the bell and placed it the trunk of the car. I remember that with the combination of the bell and the passengers those old springs were bent.

We had caused some disturbance but were chased as we pulled away with our prize. In Northville we managed to hoist the bell up in a large pine tree on the hill behind the church. There was a full moon that night and with the street lights in the village you could see what was going on down below. At the bewitching hour the bell was rung. Shadows appeared from nowhere about the church, flash lights scouted the area and in the church. This went on until approximately 2a.m. Each time they disappeared we would ring the bell again. Finally we went home for another day in school.

But now for the rest of the story...

I no sooner reached my school desk the next day when the principal announced over the public address system, "Lewie Decker come immediately to the principal's office." There I was confronted with Clarence Davidson, Zeke Foster the local State Trooper and Fred Frasier, the Sacandaga Park caretaker. The incident was cleared up when we all got together and replaced the bell. Frasier was satisfied and kind enough not to press charges.

The principal was not as kind and I had to make two weeks of after school activities. Remember, we used to call it eighth period. I think I used to get more eight periods than any other student in that school.

At one time in Johnstown there was a very historic bell that graced the bell tower of the old Johnstown Academy. This old bell had originally been a gift from Queen Anne of England and was housed in the Queen Anne Church to the Mohawks at what is today Fort Hunter. When the Erie Canal was built, Queen Anne's Church was torn down and dismantled to make way for the Erie Canal. The bell ended up in Johnstown on the old Academy. When the Academy was abandoned, the bell was preserved and placed near the stair well of the second floor of the old Johnstown High School, located on the corner of Montgomery and Market streets. When the school caught on fire the bell was forgotten and fell among the charred timbers and debris in the basement of the old building where it remained during the winter. Ice formed inside causing it to crack. Pieces of it, along with its clapper, are displayed in the Johnstown Historical Society Museum on North William Street.

I believe one of the most historic bells in our county occupies its place in the Fulton County Court House, high up in its bell tower. This bell was placed there in 1772 when the old Historic Court House was built and has remained there to this day. It's not a bell as you would describe a bell today, but rather unique. It is shaped from a heavy piece of wrought iron into a triangular shape and is suspended from a beam in the bell tower. Next to it is a hammer hinged and with a spring. When the rope attached to the hammer is pulled, the hammer strikes the anvil, giving off a distinctive dull sounding voice but one that penetrates outside the court house. To my estimation this old bell (and lets hope it is never replaced with a modern one) is as important as the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. Due not only to its ancient age and its service to the county all these years but it was rung shortly after the Battle of Johnstown in 1781, when news reached here that Cornwallis had surrendered at Yorktown. It rang shortly after the battle of Johnstown on Oct. 25, 1781 when Major Ross and his Loyalist and Indian allies were pursued by our local militia. The militia caught up with the enemy's rear guard near a ford on the West Canada Creek and here is where the notorious Walter Butler was slain.

Butler was hated by the patriots in the valley. Back in Johnstown news reached the residents of the defeat of the British Army at Yorktown. At the same time word came in of the death of Walter Butler. It was described that the local residents lit a huge bonfire in the street by the Court House and the Court House bell was rung more over the death of Walter Butler than the defeat of the whole British Army.

The old bell in the Historic Court House rang when the Declaration of Independence was signed (the same as the Liberty Bell) and when the U.S. Constitution was signed. I personally rang it when across United States all bells were asked to ring on the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution. Long may that bell be preserved to remind us of these National and local events. This is truly our county's most historic bell.


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Copyright ,1999 Lewis Decker
Copyright , 2001 Allyn Hess Perry, Jeanette Shiel
All Rights Reserved.


Last updated Tuesday, 13-May-2008 13:13:57 PDT