Saturday, July 14, 2012

Bevin, Bells and the Fire

Dozens of stories and tributes emerged in the aftermath of the horrendous inferno that destroyed the Bevin Bros. Manufacturing Co. factory beginning Saturday night May 26, 2012 - the last of the nearly 45 bell manufacturers that operated in East Hampton since 1807. Matt Bevin, the 6th generation family President, who has become an impassioned advocate of the company's history and its tie to East Hampton, took valuable time from his hectic schedule to tour the remnants of the 130 year old factory with me on June 6th and discussed the tedious process sifting through rubble in hopes of recovering the key component that could enable Bevin Bros. to be the Phoenix that rises from the Ashes - the dies and molds of the fabled bells for which this town identifies itself. Many factors contributed to the success of the bell industry and with some good old Yankee ingenuity, a bright future may emerge yet. The growth of the bell industry can be traced to a myriad of factors, but I believe several most important. First and foremost, William Barton, the founder and first bell maker laid the ground work for the industry's future. It was Barton, in his small foundry just east of his home on the crest of what is now Barton Hill that took so many of the young men of Chatham into apprenticeship and taught them the trade and encouraged them to venture out on their own. Many of the apprentices also worked in Cairo, New York before coming back to East Hampton. It was this freely given training and information that ultimately served the impetus for growth. Among the many apprentices were Barton's sons Hiram and Hubbard and grandson William E. Barton and two young men, William and Abner Bevin, who learned the trade and in 1832 with brother Chauncey, established Bevin Bros. Manufacturing Co.

In the aftermath of the recent fire, many have recounted the importance the bell industry, and in particular Bevin Bros., has had on our community. I doubt that William Barton had any idea how significant and extensive his teaching would extend, and it is only with the destructive force of nature, sparked by lighting, that we seem to appreciate it. In 1832 when Bevin Bros. formed, East Hampton would hardly be considered a suitable location to develop a product or industry that would stretch to the far corners of the world - but it did. William Barton's generosity to train the men of Chatham was the first key factor. The second factor that propelled the industry into national prominence was the railroad. In the 1860s, tracks were laid for the New York and Boston Railroad (which went through bankruptcy and was reformed as the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad Company) through East Hampton over the Airline which was dubbed the shortest route between New York and Boston. The introduction of mass transportation enabled East Hampton products to be distributed inexpensively throughout the country and ultimately the world - a fact that did not go unnoticed locally as other entrepreneurs created sister companies. In 1866, H. H. Abbe, E. C. Barton, E. G. Cone and A. H. Conklin formed the Gong Bell Manufacturing Company. Based on a design by Elijah Barton, the company created revolving chimes in bell toys on wheels. Some of these toys were among the earliest promoting Disney cartoon characters such as Mickey Mouse. Bevin Bros. as you may remember, specialized in sleigh bells from which the town became known as the "jingle bell town" due to the distinctive sound they created in the horse drawn carriage era. N. N. Hill Brass Co. became the first to stamp bells from sheet metal.

The success of the East Hampton bell industry, which started with limited capital in one or two man shops or barns, is a microcosm of so many other industries that developed in America and elsewhere around the world by enterprising entrepreneurs. Three key components melded small artisans into the world's largest producers. The first was the education and training young apprentices from Chatham received from William Barton as they learned how to blend base metals - iron, tin, silver and nickel - into alloys that would produce those sweat sounds and chimes from the forged bells they crafted. The second, the development of rail service through our community enabled cost effective distribution throughout our nation. But the third and often overlooked component for the transformation of small handcrafted bells produced in charcoal fired foundries to mass production of millions of bells, was inexpensive energy. For our bell industry that energy source was water. Still in use at the time of the tragic fire on May 26th, water power was used to operate the presses and machinery at the factory. A water turbine powered shaft, pulley and belt system drove many machines with safe, clean and non-polluting energy. The flow of water from Lake Pocotopaug powered not only Bevin Bros. but the other factories along Pocotopaug Creek, and, water power may yet be part of the salvation of Bevin Bros. and the bell industry in days to come. Until the early 1960s, mill ponds dotted the landscape as Pocotopaug Creek tumbled from the lake's outlet and dam near the American Distilling Plant (our other major industry and the world's largest produceer of Witch Hazel) through the center of town exiting our community through the great meadows between Young Street and Chestnut Hill.

Tranformation to world's largest bell producer required an inexpensive energy source. The water flowing from the lake became essential, and with a bit of Yankee ingenuity, a constant flow or head was maintained. The "Head", defined as "a body of water kept in reserve at a height; the containing bank, dam or wall; a mass of water in motion; and the difference in elevation between two points in a body of fuid," quite simple explains how water pressure drove the turbines that powered the machinery that produced bells, bells and more bells. To provide a constant water flow, retaining ponds, beginning with Bevin's Pond were created enabling constant flow regardless of weather conditions as Pocotopaug Creek descended nearly 100 feet from the lake's edge until exiting town. Although most have been reclaimed over the years, I remember the mill ponds situated near each factory as Pocotopaug Creek headed toward the Salmon River. A small pond remains between Bevin's and the Summit Tread building and a parking lot now exists in front of Sal Floridia's small engine repair shop that was once the reservoir for Starr Bros. Mfg. Co. The J. C. Barton building on Skinner Street was built on the former retaining pond for N. N. Hill Brass. Others existed as well. Bevin's Pond is also but a small remnant from my youth. After the disasterous rains and flooding in June 1982, the State DEP, at the direction of Governor William O'Neill, performed a complete inventory and comprehensive evaluation of all dams throughout the State. Owners were required to upgrade the dams to comply with 100 year storm standards or dismantle the dam for safety reasons. Because of the significant cost to reconstruct these private dams which held retaining ponds, many owners, including Bevin Bros., opted to dismantle rather than rebuild.

The mill ponds, important storage reservoirs to maintain a constant water flow year round to power turbines, have become another vestige of our once prominent bell industry here in East Hampton. Perhaps when Matt Bevin and Bevin Bros. Manufacturing Co. rebuild their plant, plans will include repair and reconstruction of the dam and revival of the once prominent Bevin Pond. Although a small pond remains, I have visions as a small boy casting my fishing line into much grander expanse. Over time, memories fade. I always thought the pond was 10 or 12 feet deep, which one might expect when you see the back side of the dam, or what remains of it. When it was drained in the mid 1980s, I was amazed to find the pond never reached a depth of more than 3 or 4 feet. It also occurred to me that until the notoriety of the Bevin Bros. fire a few weeks back, only a small number of residents actually knew where the Bevin Bell Factory was and far fewer had actually ever visited it. Tucked behind the old Summit Thread Mill on Summit Street and shielded by trees, one would hardly know it existed or that millions of bells were manufactured there and shipped throughout the world.. Even when thousands return to East Hampton for Old Home Days festivities at the Center School grounds, I suspect few have been aware of the 1880s factory only 500 feet away, nor do we think about the generous gift by the Bevin family of those very grounds we tread upon while partaking of hamburgs, cold drinks, pizza, baked potatoes, a dozen other treats and enjoying the variety of entertainment organized by the Old Home Days Committee