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Tower Bells Restoration

On November 2, 2001, a boom truck was brought to the church site to remove the bells and the timber frame from the bell loft, for there was fear that the loft may collapse under the enormous weight that was resting upon it. They were placed on the ground beside the largest bell, which had fallen from the fire as a result of the tower collapsing.

A few days after the fire, all ten Meneely bells, the Mears tolling bell, and the timber frame were loaded onto a truck and moved to a local business to be stored. Once unloaded, the bells were visually checked for damage. Two of the smaller bells clearly showed discoloration from the intense heat and the largest bell appeared to have been cracked due to its fall to the ground. The Mears tolling bell had also received damage – the hanging brackets were broken off which severely affected the possibility of rehanging the bell. Once the bells were removed from the pieces otimber, they were moved inside so that further inspection could take place.

Once clean up of the debris started, the search for pieces of the chimestand began. Anything that looked like part of the stand was saved for future reference. Small pieces of charred wood and twisted metal would provide vital information to be used in the restoration of the chimes. Surprisingly, when the heaviest of the ashes were removed, the lower two wooden members of the chimestand were revealed. They were immediately removed from the floor and put into storage for future use. However, these two pieces would prove to be the only remaining wooden parts of the chimestand that survived the fire. All the rest had been destroyed.

In December 2001, several steps were taken towards the restoration of the chimes. The first task was to find a company who was able to carry out the work that would be necessary to repair the bells. A foundry in Georgetown, Ohio was located and a phone call was made to Meek’s and Watson Bell Foundry. Surprisingly enough, after a short conversation, it was learned that this company had documentation on St. John’s bells, which had originally been cast by the Meneely and Co. Bell Foundry almost 100 years prior. It was also learned that this company was very familiar with Meneely bells and had done extensive work on other chimes and carillons.

Over the next few weeks, it was discussed with Mr. Watson on how the best way would be to proceed in determining the extent of the damage that had been done to the bells. It was determined that a recording of the bells should be made. In February 2002, each bell was lifted individually into the air. Each bell was then struck by hand, allowing the ring to fully dissipate before being struck a second time. A recording was made of this process, and then sent to Meeks and Watson, so they could analyze the ring of each bell. It was concluded that three of the ten bells would need to be recast, since they were beyond repair. Shortly after the results were found, Meeks and Watson provided a full report including a description of each bell’s ring, along with a graph representing the five individual frequencies that make up the sound of the bell.

Since there were no records or drawings of the original chimestand, the tedious task of creating a set of working drawings was undertaken. Information was gathered from the small pieces of wood and metal that were sifted from the ashes, as well as studying in depth the many pictures of the original stand that were taken over the years by various sources.

Another task that was necessary was the assembling of the timber frame on which the bells hung, in order to provide the architects with the ability to see the frame and retrieve measurements from it. The assembling of this frame proved to be very beneficial when it came time to design a new method of hanging the largest bell and the other mechanical components.

By the fall of 2002, the bells were prepared for their trip to Ohio. They were loaded on a truck and taken to the church, where a short service marking the 100th anniversary of their dedication was held as a “send off” prior to being shipped to Meeks and Watson. The bells were then on their way to Ohio to start the process of being refurbished and recast.

As 2003 arrived, work began on the new chimestand. The original two wooden members that were saved from the fire would become to foundation on which the new stand would be built. Quarter sawn oak turnings were made and before long the stand started to take shape. After a few months of work, the body was complete and it was stained and sealed in preparation for the metal components to be installed.

By July 2003, it was time to cast the first of the three bells, so a trip was planned to visit the foundry in Ohio, to take part in the casting process. This trip provided an opportunity to learn about the tuning process of bells and the related mechanics of chimes and carillons. There was also a great deal of time spent on the rehanging of the bells on the timber frame; in particular was the designing of a new system of hanging the largest bell so that it would be able to incorporate a center mounted clapper system.

By early October 2003, the rebuilt timber frame was on site on the church grounds. The frame was rebuilt using as many timbers from the original as possible. On November 3rd, the ten bells returned to St. John’s and by the end of the same day, they were all rehung on the new timber frame. By November 6th, everything was ready for the lift into the newly constructed tower. By 12:00 pm, all 5 tons of metal and wood was in place in the bell tower.

During the following winter, work continued on the chimestand. The ten oak plough handles would become one of the more challenging parts to recreate. The handles had to be recreated based on two very small charred sections of the original handles, photographs, and on the memory of how they felt in the hands of the chimer when being played. The two side panels and music rack have been cast out of bronze and installed on the chimestand.