The Bell Tolls Again

This article first appeared in the newsletter of the Guy-Albion Historical Society.
By: Bill Lyons (Former ACC Pastor)

After about fifty years since it was last tolled, recent repairs to the bell in the tower of Albion Community Church enable it to be tolled again. Tolling is a slow series of separate rings that announce that someone in the community has died. Many of us have never heard a bell tolled, although Ernest Hemmingway took the title for his novel, For Whom The Bell Tolls, from a line by John Donne, "never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

Albion Community Church BellThe bell in the Albion Church, 1st and E Streets, has called people to worship with its familiar and happy ding-dong chime nearly every Sunday for 106 years. At one time, however, it was also tolled, and it was rung as a public fire alarm. It was one of three church bells used as fire bells. The other two hung, respectively, in the United Brethren Church at 3rd and D Streets, and in the Methodist Church at 1st and D streets. Those churches each had two bells. The second was smaller, for rapid ringing as the fire bell. To announce a fire, one could go to the nearest church and ring the bell. At that time, of course, all churches were left unlocked.

Joe Keeney remembers going with another volunteer to ring the bell in the present Albion Church in the mid 1950's. Soon after, Girard Clark and Joe organized the Albion Fire Department, which chose Joe as Fire Chief. Fire District 11 in Whitman County furnished their first fire truck, and the department remodeled a garage for it next to Joe's present shop on Main Street. On a post in front of the garage, they installed a fire siren (it is still in use on the roof of Town Hall). After the new siren, the town's bells never again rang for a fire.

The present church bell was installed when the former Albion Christian Church was built in 1900. The bell was set in place with its yoke that pivots on two cast iron support frames, or A-Stands. Then, the highest, narrower section of the tower was built over it. Cast of steel alloy at the O. S. Bell Co. in Hillsboro, Oregon, the bell is 36 inches wide. When one is next to the bell inside the tower, it seems twice that big (and the slightest ring is deafening). It has two clappers or strikers, each an iron ball four inches in diameter. One swings freely inside the bell, and chimes for worship and for weddings. With this clapper, the massive bell chimes in a regular rhythm as the rope on a 3-foot pulley rocks it back-and-forth. A pair of leaf springs inside the bell give the clapper an even, rhythmic bounce.

The second clapper hinges from one side, pivoting on one of the cast iron A-Stands. When its own rope is pulled, the lower clapper hinges upward to strike the bell's rim while the bell hangs motionless. This clapper can strike as slowly or as rapidly as someone pulls the rope. A person would pull the rope rapidly to alert the town to a fire, no doubt with great urgency and effort. Over the years, ringing to announce fires hammered a smooth, broad line on one side of the bell's inner rim.

One could also toll the bell by pulling the fire bell rope in widely spaced intervals for an extended period. In parts of the country, tolls could be as much as a minute apart. Some churches with a large bell will toll again each time its resonating has died out--every five seconds to every ten seconds, depending on the bell's size. Some say this is to symbolize the life that has been silenced. In most regions, tolls are now commonly ten seconds between strikes, regardless of the bell's size. Five minutes' duration is usual for announcing a death, or else one toll for each year of the deceased person's life. Tolling for someone important to the community might continue for longer.

There are few still in Albion who remember hearing a bell tolled, although Jim Emerson and others tell of one particular tragedy. In 1927, 10-year-old Delbert Finch fell into the river during high water. The big bell was rung loud and long, and many people went to help search for the lad. Delbert's body was found several miles downstream.

By the time I began serving Albion Community Church in 1990, the fire bell rope had been lost and its hole in the ceiling of the entrance had been filled with caulk. In November of 2006, church chairman Larry McGrew and I installed a new rope, and Clinton Callaway repaired damage to the fire bell clapper. We tolled the bell for the first time for Girard Clark on January 30, 2007, the day he was buried.

The church will toll the bell as a community service for anyone who resided at the time of their death in Albion or in its surrounding area, and for any former resident retired in Whitman County. We will usually toll it immediately upon word of the death. It can otherwise be tolled at the end of a funeral. Please contact Pastor Lyons at 509-332-7638. The church may also chime or toll the bell for occasions of community importance.

There was one other large bell in Albion. Edwards College had a bell. After the college closed, the bell served as the only bell of the Albion Schools during the many years the building housed school classes and activities. Apparently, the present Albion Town Hall, which was built as the Albion School, has never had a bell. A neighbor tells me the Edwards College bell was taken down some time before 1956 and was half-buried in a yard in the 400 block of Main Street. It was used as a bullet trap for handgun shooting practice, and it may have been sold later for scrap iron. The larger of the  two bells that once hung in the United Brethren Church was given to a church camp near Kendrick after the church closed.  We don't know what became of the bells that hung in the Methodist Church.