Historic bells to ring today

02/12/09 7:30AM By Steve Zind
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Jeb Wallace-Brodeur/Times Argus
Bell ringer Lew Petit(left)and Pastor Pete Plagge
(Host) At 2:12 this afternoon, bells around Vermont will ring to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln.

Vermonters are being encouraged to ring school bells, hand bells, and church and town hall bells.

As VPR's Steve Zind explains, some of the bells that will ring today have an historic connection to Lincoln's life and times.

(Zind) There was a time when people in every village marked the day's progress by the bell in the town hall or church.

In Randolph Center the bell in the tower of the First Congregational Church used to sound three times a day: in the morning to signal time to go to work, at noon for lunch and finally at the end of each day.

Local historian Mariam Herwig says in the early 1800s, it was the only way most people had to mark the time.

(Herwig) "Most of them didn't have watches or clocks. If they did, they were taxed. So that was their timepiece."

(Zind) Herwig says the bell in Randolph Center was rung at other times - it was used as an alarm - and to announce important news from far away.

(Herwig) "It was tolled for Lincoln's death. Slowly. And with a muffled sound. Whereas just the week before, at the end of the war, the bells were rung joyously."

(Zind) But for years now the bell in the Randolph Center church has been rung only before Sunday morning service, with two exceptions: The death of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and an anniversary of the bombing of Hirshoma.

Today, it will ring to mark the more celebratory occasion of the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth.

In Waterbury, the bell at the United Church of Christ will also ring. The church enjoys a connection to Lincoln.

In 1864 it's then-pastor, Charles Carroll Parker, visited an encampment of Vermont soldiers just before the Battle of the Wilderness. On the way home, Parker stopped at the White House and met Lincoln. Here's what he wrote of the meeting:

(Coffin) "As I looked at the President, tall awkward, but dignified and solemn, a feeling not much removed from awe came over me and I felt I would pray from him as I had never done before."

AP Photo/Toby Talbot
Bob Crandall rings the church bell at the First Congregational Church at 2:12 p.m. in Berlin


(Zind) The Vermont brigade lost more than 1,600 of its 2,100 men at the Wilderness.

Civil War historian and writer Howard Coffin says Vermont's sacrifice was noted by Lincoln - and the president was immensely popular here.

(Coffin) "You can see it in the politics. In 1860 he runs against a native Vermonter for President, Stephen Douglas from Brandon, and defeats him 5 to 1 here in Vermont. Four years later, after the bloody reality of war had set in, Vermonters still vote 4 to 1 for Lincoln."

(Zind) Coffin says when Lincoln died in 1865, it's said some of Vermont's bells tolled all day.

And as word spread of the President's death, people gathered to mourn.

(Coffin) "And they went to their churches for funerals, all over Vermont. They called them funerals."

(Zind) Today, bells like the one at the church in Waterbury will ring in celebration, not mourning.

(Zind) Coffin says it's fitting that on the two hundredth anniversary of Lincoln's birth, a black man from Lincoln's home state is now the President of the United States.

For VPR News, I'm Steve Zind.

(Host out) Bells in churches, town halls and schools will ring for ten minutes at 2:12 this afternoon. The time was chosen because it reflects the date of Lincoln's birth - it's not known what time of day he was actually born.

There will also be a celebration of Lincoln's life this evening at 7:30 at the Vermont Statehouse.

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