Ct. Company Keeps Those Sleigh Bells Jingling

Few things announce the arrival of Christmas-time like the sound of bells. And chances are many of the bells you hear this holiday season can be sourced to one small, family-owned manufacturing business in Connecticut. Bevin Brothers was founded 180 years ago.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In addition to the delivery of gifts, the sounds of bells announce the arrival of Christmas. Chances are many of the bells you hear this holiday season came from one small town, East Hampton, Connecticut, once known as Belltown, USA. A foundry called Bevin Brothers was one of the first companies started there and today it may be the last in the country.

Josephine Holtzman has the story.

JOSEPHINE HOLTZMAN, BYLINE: In its heyday, you might've called Bevin Brothers the rock stars of the bell business.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

HOLTZMAN: A Bevin Bell once started and ended the day at the New York Stock Exchange, sat on the handlebar of the first bicycles...

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

HOLTZMAN: ...signaled the rounds of famous championship boxing matches...

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

HOLTZMAN: ...and sank with the American battleship, Maine, in the Spanish-American War. But maybe the most notable bell is the one from this holiday classic.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE")

KAROLYN GRIMES: (as Zuzu Bailey) Look Daddy, teacher says, every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.

HOLTZMAN: Yes, a Bevin Bell gave Clarence his wings in "It's a Wonderful Life." But today, the booming American bell business has gone quiet, almost.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

HOLTZMAN: At the end of Bevin Road, one factory is still making sleigh bells for Christmas orders.

MATT BEVIN: Yeah, it just has a wonderful sound to it. It just sounds like production.

HOLTZMAN: Matt Bevin walks through the old factory like a proud parent.

BEVIN: This is a strap of sleigh bells here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLEIGH BELLS)

HOLTZMAN: He rings bells and shows off the few massive machines that stamp, weld and trim the bells that begin as a coil of metal that looks like a huge fruit by the foot. To him, this is hallowed ground.

BEVIN: Six generations of my family have walked across the same floor. I mean, every single Bevin has produced bells in this little corner of Connecticut.

HOLTZMAN: Matt Bevin took over the company three years ago when his Uncle Stanley was ready to close the doors after 176 years of Bevin-run business. Matt was already running an investment management firm, but his stable career and bank account allowed him to take on the struggling family business as a labor of love.

BEVIN: Frankly, in an electronic day and age, who really needs a bell? I mean, you can replicate the sound of it with your phone. And yet there's something about them, the tangibility of them...

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

BEVIN: ...the feel, the sound, the clang that people do like.

HOLTZMAN: Maria Stevens, a Bevin employee for 19 years, assembles bells for a local steam train.

MARIA STEVENS: I am actually crimping this together for a big order for Essex train.

HOLTZMAN: Here output is too low to invest in automation, so most detailed processes are still done by hand.

Today, most young residents of East Hampton don't know why a roadside sign reads, Welcome to Belltown. But Walter Olsen, who was born here and worked at Bevin for 53 years, remembers well.

WALTER OLSEN: It's a real unique sound when the bells were going, sound you just can't duplicate it. It's just something that lives with you, that's all, that you don't forget.

BEVIN: There's something about this bell company and about our employees and about this town that has a certain spirit to it that just doesn't quit. It would be easy to quit. It would be smart to move this if you're just looking at dollars and cents. But this is Belltown and we should be producing bells in Belltown as far as I'm concerned. And if we can do anything about that, then that's what we'll do.

HOLTZMAN: Matt Bevin's goal is to make it to 200 years. And with steady Christmas orders, that just might happen. Bevin manufactures all the Salvation Army bells and fills a special order each year for the Jimmy Stewart museum - not just any bell can give an angel its wings.

For NPR News, I'm Josephine Holtzman.

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