FALL RIVER, MASSACHUSETTS — Sometimes history simply can’t be saved, as the impact of not just decades but even a century’s worth of time takes its toll on aging buildings that require too much cost to properly maintain.
But sometimes, history can be moved.
In a field north of B.M.C. Durfee High School, sandwiched in-between two tennis courts, stands the bell tower. It does not yet, in this very old and historic textile mill city, have history on its side.
“It was constructed last summer,” said John Freeman, a lifelong resident of the city of Fall River and a member of a historic preservation group working to save 10 bells that once rang from a tower above the high school.
It was not the same high school that now takes in students in North Fall River, on Elsbree Street, which was built in the late 1970s. Rather, those bells came from the belfry tower of the city’s older high school, which dates back more than a century, to the city’s earliest days.
“The original Durfee was built in 1885,” Freeman said of the historic building on Rock Street that no longer accommodates students and teachers, but rather serves as a trial court for judges, lawyers and defendants.
The Durfee Bells Preservation Society has long had a central mission: to save the bells at the old high school, which dates back to 1887. The bells were a gift to the city, given by Mary Brayton Durfee Young in memory of her only son, Bradford Matthew Chaloner Durfee. Those bells hung in the belfry of the Rock Street building for 100 years. After the state closed the school and turned the building into a newly refurbished courthouse, the bells were moved to the new high school, and placed on wooden pallets outside the building.
“The state didn’t want them,” Freeman said. “They had them removed.”
For a while, nothing came of them. When one of the bells got stolen, that prompted former Fall River Mayor Edward Lambert to move them to a city garage to avoid another theft.
“Someone stole a 250 pound bell, the smallest one,” Freeman said. “I can imagine two guys were able to carry it away to a truck. They probably cut it up and sold it for scrap metal.”
It was in 2001 when the preservation society formed with a simple task: to find a permanent home for the bells. Doing that proved costly, and the society had to raised more than $400,000 to construct the new tower.
But it broke ground last summer, and today stands tall and majestic, waiting patiently for the bells to arrive.
“We had this whole structure built,” Freeman said, as he stood in front of the bell tower at the new high school. The bells, he added, have been shipped to Meeks and Watson Co., a restoration firm in Cleveland, Ohio, where they can be fully restored before being returned to Fall River. At that point, the city can unite around the new tower for an official dedication ceremony, he said.
“When we finally get the bells in place, we’d like to do it before snow falls,” Freeman said.
The 52 foot tall tower has steel columns, and the top level has four clocks that are eight feet in diameter. The 10 bells, which weigh a total of 5.5 tons, will be placed on the third level once they get returned to the city.
“We want to add four more bells to those 10, and then we’ll be about play ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ on it,” Freeman said.
The bottom level, which like the middle level is now vacant, is expected to house the clavier, a keyboard programmed to operate the chimes. The public will be invited to play the bells themselves, if they so desire.
“This bottom area here,” Freeman said, “will be where you can manually play the bells. The provisions are here to do it. Someone can come in and manually play the bells.”
The tower was designed by architect John Lusk of Bristol, R.I., who was hired by the preservation society.
“He came up with the design,” Freeman said.
Next spring, the society will expand this project even further, when they place memorial bricks around the tower. The bricks that will be placed there got used as a fund-raiser for this project to help cover the costs. Anyone could “buy” a brick at a cost of between $100 and $250, and have their name placed on it for future generations to see.
“We’ll have a dedication ceremony,” Freeman said, “once the bells have been installed. There will be a memorial brick walkway built here, of people who bought a memorial brick.”
And while the tower is brand new, the bells that will become a permanent part of this structure, Freeman added, will serve to house and preserve a small part of the city’s history that the preservation society so dearly wants to hold onto.
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