The Silent Bell

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Bell manufactured by Meneely’s Foundry, West Troy, New York. Undated object held in the collection of the Southern Lorain County Historical Society, Wellington, Ohio. Photo by author.

A few months ago, I published a lengthy post on the Seminary, a school first founded in 1849 for the young women of Wellington. While conducting research for that essay, I ran across the following quote: “[Miss Eliza Hamilton] sold the building to the village which moved it to 112 Adams Street where it was converted into a residence…The school bell was removed and placed in the union school building on South Main Street built in 1867-68. Years later it was given to the ‘Spirit of ’76’ Museum” (Henes, Historic Wellington Then and Now, pg. 11-12).

This little anecdote about a bell that allegedly came from the Seminary remained in the back of my mind. Yesterday, I had occasion to visit the ‘Spirit of ’76’ Museum. They have recently put together a nice exhibition related to Wellington’s schools, commemorating the demolition of McCormick Middle School–formerly the Union School mentioned in the quote above. And there, prominently displayed, is a lovely bronze bell.

The bowl of the bell is encircled with the words “Meneely’s Foundry, West Troy, N.Y.” There is no date indicated. The overall object is about 31″ high (to the top of the metal wheel) and the mouth of the bell is 18″ in diameter. The entire apparatus is mounted on a wooden frame that appears to be original, though with a few replacement nuts and bolts.

As it happens, Meneely is a very well-known name in the world of bell manufacturing. The company was founded in 1826 by Andrew Meneely in West Troy, New York (today called Watervliet). It is likely no accident that Meneely chose to start such a business in a town that sat on the newly opened Erie Canal; bells can be extremely heavy objects and the convenience of moving them by water and then rail is mentioned in Meneely catalogs late into the nineteenth-century. The Meneely Foundry is sometimes referred to as the first or oldest bell manufacturer in the United States, but it would be more accurate to say that it was the oldest continuously-operating bell foundry when it closed its doors in 1951.

View of the Erie Canal at West Troy.png

“A View of the Erie Canal at West Troy.”

Andrew Meneely ran the foundry until his death in 1851. His two oldest sons took over the business and operated it as Andrew Meneely’s Sons until 1863, when they felt confident enough of their own reputations to change the name once again to E.A. & G.R. Meneely. A younger brother founded his own competing bell foundry in adjacent Troy, New York, and the two older brothers sued to block his use of the family name. Their efforts were not ultimately successful, but left some very interesting reading in the form of court proceedings. Both Meneely bell companies remained in family hands and the two are said to have produced more than 65,000 bells over the course of their operations. Meneely catalogs can still be found in special collections departments, particularly in New York libraries. I was fortunate to find one from 1876 digitized.

In the court proceedings of “Meneely v. Meneely,” it is noted that plaintiffs E.A. & G.R. Meneely “have cast upon the bells manufactured by them…’Meneelys[‘], West Troy, N.Y.'” (New York Supreme Court Reports, 1874, Vol 3. pg. 544). Illustrations from the 1876 catalog confirm the same specific wording, which grammatically indicates more than one Meneely in the business. Remember, though, that the bell in the museum reads, “Meneely’s Foundry,” which grammatically indicates a single owner. Anecdotal evidence, in the form of a small sample of dated bells across the country, suggests that the museum’s singular wording was most commonly used on bells dating ca. 1850.

Meneely's catalog 1876 pg. 9

Illustration from “Meneely & company, bell-founders, West Troy, N.Y….” (1876) pg. 9. This type of bell is described as ideal for academies, i.e. schools. It not only has a rope over the wheel for easier ringing, but also a “Rotary Yoke, which permits the bell to be turned in a moment so as to cause the clapper to strike in a new place when desired” and not wear out the bell metal too quickly.

It is worth noting that this was not the only Meneely bell in Wellington. In 1879, when the Congregational Church was dedicated, The Wellington Enterprise ran a detailed budget of its construction expenses. Included in the account was “Bell-Menerly & Kimberly, Troy, N.Y.” The bell was grouped in a line item with the organ and unspecified “furnishing” totaling $4,150 (4/10/1879, pg. 2). This bell was produced by the rival manufacturing firm of Meneely & Kimberly, founded in 1870 by younger brother Clinton Meneely, defendant in the 1874-75 litigation mentioned above. The 1876 Congregational Church burned down just two decades later; I do not know the fate of the bell. If it survived the fire, it is quite possibly hanging on South Main Street to this day.

So what do we know? The Seminary was founded in 1849. It was sold by Eliza Hamilton to the village in 1864, but remained in use as a public primary school until it was sold (and ultimately became a private residence) in 1876. That would seem the logical point at which a school bell might have transferred to the relatively new Union School, completed in late 1867. Unfortunately, we have no known documentary evidence nor any photographs of Eliza Hamilton’s school that might confirm the presence of the bell on its grounds. The object itself has no date, though preliminary anecdotal evidence suggests it was manufactured ca. 1850. For now, at least, the bell remains tantalizingly silent.

To see twentieth-century film footage of Meneely bell production, visit: part one and part two.

UPDATE: Apparently Wellington is chock full of Meneely bells! As I was driving by the Town Hall this morning, I suddenly had an “Ah ha!” moment. Sure enough, upon closer inspection I discovered that the large bell mounted in front of that building is also a Meneely bell…and it is dated! Around the bowl is cast the inscription, “Meneelys Bell Foundry West Troy, N.Y. 1847.” I wonder how many more we might discover if we peeked into the belfries of some local churches?

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1847 Meneely bell mounted in front of Wellington’s Town Hall. Photo by author.

 

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