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Thetford Bells

07/06/07 12:00AM By Vic Henningsen
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(HOST) Every year since 1819, neighbors have gathered at midnight on July 3rd, at the First Congregational Church in Thetford Hill to observe the tradition of ringing in the 4th of July. This year commentator Vic Henningsen joined them.

(HENNINGSEN) It's a simple ceremony: gather at 11:30, read the Declaration of Independence aloud and sing songs and hymns until midnight; then ring the bell once for every year of American independence. Thirty-five of us crowded into the choir loft. The youngest, four and a half, carrying her blankets and pillow, had been working hard to learn the words to "America the Beautiful". The oldest, pushing ninety, had been doing this for over fifty years. He didn't need a script.

Slowly, we worked our way through, wife handing off to husband, father to daughter, sister to brother, neighbor to neighbor, indicting George III for all those long ago crimes and declaring our rights, once and for all.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. . ."
"He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our Constitution and . . ."
"He has constrained our fellow citizens taken captive on the high seas . . . "
"He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us."
"These United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States"
". . . we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor."

After the reading, as we sang, I wondered what brought people out so late for such an event. Christina Robinson told me:

"It was important to me to bring my children into this and have them engage a little more with the 4th of July other than, you know, a parade where people are throwing candy at you. Marion was just telling me 'The Fourth of July is just like Halloween except you don't have to wear costumes, cause you get candy at the parade.'"

At midnight we rang the bells. Stepping outside and looking up through the big window, I saw old hands showing the rest how to pull and let the rope rise on its own. Little kids either didn't listen or knew not to - holding on to the bell rope and soaring high above the rest.

"Sure, let everybody have a ring. Everybody gets into the act. . . . Is that it? That's it. We're done? Two hundred and thirty-one!"

After singing a few more songs - The Battle Hymn of the Republic, This Land is Your Land - Peter Blodgett told me why he keeps coming back:

"I heard about it from word of mouth and just showed up one July 3rd and it was just a wonderful experience of reaching through the dark to our ancestors . . . It's also fun to wake up all your neighbors with a bell."

The Declaration was first celebrated by bell-ringing up and down the country. That doesn't happen much anymore. But in Thetford, for almost two hundred years, neighbors have gathered to let freedom ring.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.

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