Researched and written by Diana Carroll, to whom the Pealers are eternally grateful.
"But when we are far from Kokosing,
we still shall hear a calling bell..."
-The Kokosing Farewell
Throughout its 176-year history, Kenyon has always looked to the colleges and universities of England for inspiration in tradition, architecture, and design. To those who had a hand in securing them, it seemed only natural that Kenyon be outfitted with a set of bells to rival those of its English counterparts. Because there are relatively few of them, and also because they may be played by one person alone using levers arranged like a keyboard, Kenyon's bells are technically known as "chimes". The third such set ever to be installed in the United States, these bells occupy the tower of the Church of the Holy Spirit. Today, the chimes are played at every important College ceremony and on Friday afternoons when classes are finished for the week. The Kenyon College Pealers form an active student organization, but the "tintinnabulation" that they love began as nothing more than a dream.
When the Rt. Rev. Gregory Thursten Bedell first laid plans for building the Kenyon Chapel in 1869, he made sure that it would be equipped with a tower capable of housing a clock and chimes, even though the chances of purchasing such items in the near future seemed impossibly slim. It was not until 1879 that a close friend of the Bishop took it upon himself to raise the necessary funds, and he was remarkably successful in doing so. Between February and June of that year, about $4,000 was raised from nearly 300 subscribers, many of whom could only afford to give a few dollars. This sum was sufficient to purchase the tower clock, a chime of nine bells, and the attachments that would allow clock and chimes to work together. The Bishop's friend—and the driving force behind this campaign—was named Robert Summerfield French.
R.S.French was himself an alumnus of Kenyon College, having graduated with the class of 1849. After receiving a further degree at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City, French returned to Gambier and opened a drug and bookstore (1). He would live out the rest of his life in this tiny village, working avidly and unceasingly for the betterment of his alma mater. However, "the most significant token of his zeal is recorded in the beautiful chimes whose silvery tongues continually echo God's summons to parishioner and student" (12). As Bishop Bedell said on the occasion of presenting the clock and chime to the trustees of Kenyon College, "his name will never be dissevered from the Chimes and Clock of Gambier" (2). Even after their installation, French continued working to ensure that the chimes would be well taken care of. He went so far as to organize a "Grand Concert" in Rosse Chapel, which netted a whopping $13.65 for a fund to "maintain and keep in order the chimes and clock" (12).
Those Chimes and Clock are themselves no less remarkable than the man who made their existence possible. The chimes were made by Meneely & Kimberly of Troy, New York, and the clock by E. Howard & Co. of Boston. Each of the nine original bells is tuned to one note of the F Major scale, with an additional E flat so that songs may be played in minor. (A high G bell was also added at a later date, probably in the 1940s.) The bells range from 215 to 1,824 pounds, with the clapper of the largest bell weighing 50 pounds alone. An inscription from the book of Revelation supplies the name for each bell. The entire verse may be read by "standing among them and facing west, and reading alternately from the greater to the less, terminating with the least.
It was on this verse that Bishop Bedell preached at the bells' presentation. He intended that those who knew the verse would be reminded of it every time they heard the chimes.
The first people to hear Kenyon's chimes were certainly pleased by them, whether or not they knew the biblical significance. A newspaper article from the time tells of townsfolk from Mt. Vernon who were invited to a short chime-concert upon the occasion of Bishop Bedell's arrival in Gambier after the June 7 installation of the bells. Nearly 100 people gathered on the lawn to hear about a half-hour of familiar tunes. The first song played on the chimes was, appropriately enough, "Cambridge" (a hymn to which the words begin, "Come Holy Spirit, heavenly dove"). That same newspaper article also describes "three young gentlemen of Gambier" who were in the process of learning to play the chimes. Frank Blake, who could perhaps be seen as the very first Kenyon College Pealer, was reportedly "already quite at home in the belfry" (12).
Of course, not everyone was entirely happy with the bells. The animosity of one man succeeded in stirring up a controversy that was described as "Gambier's Latest Scandal!" (12). It is perhaps understandable that Peter Neff, who happened to have graduated Kenyon the same year as R.S. French, objected to the chimes. Neff lived a mere 700 feet from the bell tower, and the angle of the church roof seems to have sent the sound waves directly toward his house. Then, as now, the bells were set to play the Cambridge Chimes (also known as the Westminster Chimes) at every quarter hour. One can imagine the disturbance this would have caused in the Neff household, especially since the chimes were not turned off at night. Several members of the Neff family were also invalids, and the disruption to their sleep proved detrimental to their health. Neff's first complaint against the bells arose in the form of an open letter to the community, which was published as a pamphlet in April of 1880, less than a year after the chimes were installed. Although he claims that his main concern is with the incessant clanging of the Cambridge Chimes, Neff also thoroughly attacks the inclusion of bells in church services, Frank Blake's "immoderate ringing", the height of the tower, the character of those who supported the bells, and the legitimacy of a pro-bell petition that had recently circulated. Neff was not alone in his efforts to have at least the Cambridge Chimes made permanently "dumb", but he was certainly the most vocal supporter of the movement.
The issue of the chimes became incredibly divisive, both within the church itself and in the larger communities of Gambier and Mt. Vernon. Some people reportedly moved away because of the disturbance caused by the bells. At least one prominent parishioner left the church over the controversy, and several more families likely followed. The issue was resolved for a time when the College agreed to stop the chimes from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. at Peter Neff's expense (1). A few years later, however, this practice ended abruptly and several lawsuits ensued. It seems that the whole of Gambier was called upon to testify, and the townsfolk "were almost unanimously in favor of the chimes" (1). The courts eventually ruled that the chimes should be stopped at night only for the sake of the Neff family invalids, and only when they were in residence. In spite of Peter Neff and his followers, the chimes were quickly becoming a part of Gambier life, and they have continued to ring to this day.
The Gambier chimes have always been used to keep time, but their use for playing actual songs and traditional peals has varied widely over the past century. At first, the College apparently hired someone for the position of bell-ringer, as evidenced by several notes of application from the year 1896. Other members of the community undoubtedly took a turn with the chimes, as well. A tradition developed for those students who had at some point played the chimes to write their names and class years in the tower before graduation. From these signatures, many of which are still visible today, it is clear that the practice of bell-ringing continued strongly into the early part of the twentieth century. After that, documentation becomes scarce. While the chimes obviously remained in use for many years, it is uncertain with what regularity or on what occasions they were played. The Rev. William Smith ('30) reports that he was the only pealer from 1927 to 1929, having learned from an older student named John Converse (13). Around the late 40's and early 50's, the old system of counterweights that controlled the Cambridge Chimes was replaced by more modern mechanisms. It may be conjectured that President Chalmers had something to do with this improvement, since he himself "was wont to beat those bells hard from time to time, whether in expression of presidential joys or frustrations I know not" (15). The author of those words, the Rev. Almus M. Thorp (H'52), also played the bells while he was Dean of Bexley Hall during the 1960s.
The bells were found "in disuse" when Rev. Thorp took his post, and it seems that they returned to that state after his departure. Whether or not this is the case, it is certain that no one had played the chimes for many years when Robert Blythe ('82) rediscovered their existence in 1978. He first set about fixing certain parts that had broken, and then revived the 100-year-old tradition of pealing, mixing secular music with hymn tunes and songs of Kenyon in his varied repertoire. Since then, the bell-playing has continued uninterrupted, with each successive generation of Pealers adding to and enriching the tradition. The current Pealers play every Friday afternoon between four and five o'clock. Fifteen minutes of traditional peals (patterns repeated three times, first going up the scale and then down) are followed by a half-hour of songs and then fifteen more minutes of pealing. The goal is to play as close as possible to five o'clock without running over the Cambridge Chimes. The Pealers also play Christmas Carols before and after the annual Advent Lessons and Carols service.
Despite their checkered history, the chimes have become an integral part of the Kenyon College experience. The hopes of R.S. French and Bishop Bedell are fulfilled daily as students, teachers, and villagers alike go through their routines to the sound of the chimes. Looking back on their college days, alumni often recall the joyous pealing of academic processions or the solemn notes of The Kokosing Farewell drifting out over the campus. As one old newspaper article rightly predicted, "many a student in after life would feel that he was welcomed back by the bells of Old Kenyon" (12).
(Note: The following items, except for sources 1 and 14, may all be found in the Kenyon College Archives.)
If you have any questions or would like more information, you can email Diana Carroll (our unofficial historian) or one of the other people listed under contact information.
Similarly, if you were ever a Pealer or have any stories, information about the bell tower or the chimes, or even corrections to share with us, we'd love to hear from you!
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© Copyright 2001, Diana Carroll. All Rights Reserved.