Bells are Ringing
Great moments in building history: The installation of a new wheel for a church's bell tower gets somewhat complicated
The ad read, “Wanted: Someone to build a wheel.” The job sounded interesting, so I called to get the details. The bell in a local church had fallen into disrepair, but it needed to be functional for a celebration marking the 100th year of the church in its current location.
I got the job and built a maple wheel about 40 in. dia. and 2-1/2 in. thick with four spokes radiating from the center. The installation plan was to get into the belfry, remove the remains of the old wheel, fit the new wheel over the “axle” of the bell, tie a rope to the wheel, and drop that rope through an existing hole in the roof, where it could be accessed from inside.
On installation day, I phoned Phil, my contact person at the church. Phil had arranged to borrow an old wooden ladder from the local volunteer fire department; the ladder would allow us to access the belfry. This ladder was so heavy that it was all Phil and I could do to load it onto my old flatbed truck.
The church roof has a really steep pitch, maybe 14-in-12 or 16-in-12. And the ladder ended up being short of the belfry by a bunch. To access the roof, we had to set up the ladder in the back of my truck; then we blocked the legs. Even so, when I climbed up, I could just barely reach the peak and pull myself up. As I sat there thinking that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, Phil hollered up that he had to get to work and that he would try to get back later in the afternoon.
I am not one to give up. So I hoisted up the new wheel and placed it over the bell’s axle, bolted it in place, and attached the rope.
I then spent several hours stringing the rope from the belfry into the church. Try as I might, I could not get it to drop through. Evidently, there was a ceiling in the church, and the hole in the ceiling and the hole in the roof did not line up.
What to do now? I walked to the lumberyard, bought a 16-ft. piece of 1/4-in. rebar, and walked back to the church. Sitting on the roof, I used the rebar with the rope attached to it to probe for the hole in the ceiling. Although it took me a couple of hours, I finally found the hole in the ceiling and dropped the rebar with the rope attached down the hole.
After six or seven hours, this little project came to a successful end. Never mind that it was supposed to take only three hours, maximum. Phil, of course, was nowhere to be found to help with the ladder, so I took it down by myself. With all of my tools and the ladder loaded up, I started to drive away. I know I should have just kept going. Somehow, though, I just couldn’t resist the temptation to ring the bell.
With the truck running, I dashed into the foyer and yanked the rope a couple of times. I could hear the bell ringing, but just barely. Then I wondered how it sounded outside. I had a chance of hearing the bell outside only if I pulled on the rope so hard and far that it threatened to make me airborne as it pulled me back. I did it anyway. I pulled and pulled and pulled—right to the point where the bell became wedged upside down in the belfry.
Like a parent who finds the strength to lift a car off a child, I raised the heavy old wooden ladder by myself, climbed back to the belfry, and had to kick the bell loose from its wedged position. Then I really got the chance to hear the bell from outside. When it turned back over, it rang so loud it almost knocked me out of the belfry.
When I decided that the statute of limitations had run out on this incident and that it would be OK to write about it, I called the minister of the church to see if the bell was still operational. He told me that after 21 years, they are still ringing it every Sunday.
Drawing by Jackie Rogers