Editor's update: Bevin Bros. sustained severe damage in a May 27, 2012. Learn more from WTNH-TV.
Using a pair of pliers, Linda Yeaton, 63, twists a piece of wire around a loop inside a steel cowbell and attaches a small metal ball to the other end at the oldest bell factory in the nation.
"It's called a tongue and makes the jingle sound," says Yeaton, who has assembled bells for 20 years at Bevin Brothers Manufacturing Co. in East Hampton, Conn.
Since the company was founded in 1832, Bevin Brothers has manufactured more than 750 million bells, from bicycle and church bells to the hand bells jingled by thousands of Salvation Army bell ringers each Christmas season.
"We've been making bells before electricity, trains or bicycles were invented," says Matt Bevin, 43, the sixth generation of the Bevin family to own the company.
As Bevin strides across the factory's weathered floorboards, he literally walks in his ancestors' footsteps. Bevin's great-great-great grandfather Abner Bevin established the company in East Hampton with his brothers William, Chauncey and Philo.
Abner and William learned the bell-making trade as indentured servants from William Barton, the first bell maker in East Hampton, known since as Bell Town because it once was home to 30 bell manufacturers. In the 1820s, when the brothers' contracted work terms expired, they set up small foundries in their backyards to cast bells by pouring molten metal into molds. In 1832, they joined forces and formed Bevin Brothers.
Today, Bevin Brothers is the last bell manufacturer in East Hampton (pop. 13,352). The company's 19 employees produce, market and sell 1.2 million bells annually in 200 varieties, including call bells, door bells, dinner bells, ice cream bells, commemorative wedding and anniversary bells, and trip gongs that are used in prize fights and the mining industries. The bells are sold to retail stores and sports teams, and to businesses and charitable organizations that use them for advertising and fundraising campaigns.
"There is something universally appealing about a bell—the sound, the novelty of it, the nostalgia associated with jingle bells and wedding bells," Bevin says. "For that reason, they endure globally."
While Bevin Brothers stopped casting bells in 1979, the company continues to stamp them from rolls of sheet metal. "We buy sheets of brass, copper and steel that run through a machine that does the cutting and forming," says Doug Dilla, 54, the company's operations manager.
After the bells are stamped, they are cleaned to remove oil residue, dried in corncob dust and dropped into a hopper to separate the bells from the dust. The bells' sharp edges are filed off, the tongues are inserted, and straps or handles are added. Bells are polished, powder-coated or metal-plated, and custom orders are imprinted with artwork, logos, names and dates.
"They have a beautiful tone," says Bob Bell, 70, president of the Essex Steam Train & Riverboat in Essex, Conn. (pop. 6,505), who buys 15,000 miniature ornamental bells from Bevin each year to give as Christmastime keepsakes to children who ride the North Pole Express Train.
During its 178-year history, Bevin Brothers produced the first bicycle bells; created souvenir bells for the presidential campaigns of Calvin Coolidge and Thomas Dewey, and commemorative bells for President Bill Clinton's first inauguration; and manufactured more than 1 million bells for the Salvation Army.
"They're sturdy and create a sound that is inviting," says Maj. Steve Morris, 45, a Salvation Army commander in Washington, D.C., who buys 300 Bevin Brothers hand bells each year.
Against all odds, Bevin Brothers has endured for nearly two centuries, producing a product that has resonated through six generations. "We have Yankee ingenuity going for us and a family that, from one generation to the next, has had someone willing to keep things running," Bevin says. "My job is to get us to 200 years. That has a nice ring to it."