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Connecticut Magazine June 2011

Bells are so common in our culture that we don’t often pause to appreciate their tone or consider our emotional responses to them. Yet we hear them every day and are trained to react to them when we do. They tell us when our workday begins and ends, and when it’s time to move from one class to the next. They call us to supper and alert us to fire. They bring excitement—when ice cream bells ring. They herald joy or sorrow—when church bells sound to signify a marriage or a death. Bells inform our lives in a variety of ways, but where do they come from?

An awful lot of them have come from Bevin Brothers Manufacturing Co. in East Hampton, which has been making bells for 179 years. They are the last bell makers in a village that once supported more than 35. During the 19th century, 90 percent of the world’s sleigh bells were produced in East Hampton, which came to be known as Bell Town. Sleigh bells, used to warn pedestrians and other drivers when a wagon was approaching, were considered vital for public safety. As cars succeeded the horse and carriage, sleigh bells quickly became a novelty item, and as the Great Depression took hold, most of the bell makers shut down. But Bevin Brothers has managed to stay afloat, and is today the only company in the nation that has sustained itself by making bells, and nothing but bells.

“This company was founded in 1832 by great-great-great- grandfather Abner Bevin and his brothers William, Chauncey and Philo,” says Matt Bevin, president of Bevin Brothers. “It is both humbling and inspiring to be part of history in such a tangible way—to literally walk across the same floorboards that five generations did before me, and to know that my steps are wearing that same board down further.”

The first bell maker in East Hampton was William Barton, who also had a factory in Cairo, N.Y. Abner and William Bevin went to work for Barton as indentured servants at his Cairo facility. When their contract had been fulfilled in the 1820s and they were free to ply their own trade, they returned home to East Hampton. They started out small, making bells for doors, ships, schools, cows, horses and sheep.

As business increased, Abner and William partnered with Chauncey and Philo, and eventually built a 44,000-square-foot factory on a pond fed by Lake Pocotopaug, where Bevin Brothers still operates today. Before the advent of electricity, all of their presses were powered by water. Many other manufacturers crowded this waterway, but Bevin Brothers was the first in line and had the advantage of controlling the flow of water from a dam.

Matt is the sixth-generation in his family to manage Bevin Brothers. After Abner died, his son and Matt’s great-great-grandfather, Chauncey Griswold Bevin, became president. He held that position for an astonishng 70 years, and in the 1940s was recognized as the longest-serving and oldest active CEO of a U.S. manufacturing company.

After Chauncey died, his son Stanley Avery Bevin took over. Prior to joining Bevin Brothers in 1948, Stanley had played semipro baseball and was recruited by the Yankees as a pitcher. But his mother, Lucy, was convinced that baseball would ruin his fingers for playing the piano so he went to work at Bevin instead.

After Stanley’s death in 1956, Matt’s grandfather, also named Chauncey Griswold, was next in line. Before Chauncey took over in the 1950s, he’d had already enjoyed a stint as a pilot for American Airlines and had been the first commercial airline pilot in the state. Upon his death in 1979, his son, and Matt’s uncle, Stanley R. Bevin, ran the company until 2008. Just prior to his retirement, Stanley approached Matt.

“Of all my cousins, I seem to have the collection of skills needed to shepherd a bell company in 21st-century America,” says Matt, an entrepreneur who also operates several other businesses in Kentucky.

Since its inception, Bevin Brothers has sold more than 750 million bells representing 200 different types. And variety is a large part of the reason why the company is still in business today.

“Our product line ranges from wedding and anniversary bells, to mechanical doorbells, to shop-alert bells that we sell to businesses, individuals and hardware stores,” says Bob Bishop, general manager. “We are also the sole source for bells used by volunteers from the Salvation Army for their fundraising efforts around the Christmas holiday. In a year we probably sell them 30,000 bells.”

Bevin Brothers has the distinction of having made the first bicycle bell, although they no longer fabricate them—they simply cannot compete with cheaper products from China. If Matt Bevin decided to outsource to Asia, that would be the end of his family’s long tradition of “American made.” He emphatically refuses to go that route, even though it would be more cost-effective. Bevin’s products have been made in America for nearly two centuries, and Matt intends to keep it that way.

“I’d rather support another small local or domestic company,” he says. “They are little guys just like us and we all need each other. Every time a little guy chooses to outsource it takes a piece of our heart and soul. I am going to do everything possible to ensure we can still produce a product that is 100 percent made in the U.S.A.”

Years ago when Matt’s uncle Stanley R.  Bevin was still head of the company, he was faced with a similar situation. Sales had started to slip, but instead of turning to outside manufacturers, he thought of a new way to reinvent an old product. He began customizing them. 

“How do you make bells relevant?” asks Matt. “You customize and personalize them. You imprint them with a logo or artwork.”
Custom imprinting now constitutes 90 percent of Bevin Brothers’ business. They get orders from a variety of organizations, businesses, schools and clubs that use their bells for fundraising and promotion, and to commemorate a special date or event.

Bob Bell, president of the Essex Steam Train & Riverboat in Essex, began purchasing Bevin bells four years ago after finding them on the Internet. Now he buys 15,000 ornamental bells annually, each inscribed with his company’s logo, to give away as souvenirs. Even though Bevin bells cost more than imported bells would, he prefers working with another Connecticut company.

“They’re great people, they make a great product. They’re in Bell Town. Of course, I’m a little partial to the name Bell,” he laughs. “It’s heartwarming to hear the bells ringing throughout the train cars. The kids really get into it. It’s not an iPod, it’s not a game. It’s very basic, but there is something magical about it.” 

Cheryl Pedersen, founder of Poochie-Bells in Simsbury, typically purchases about 100,000 custom sleigh bells a year for her canine training business. The dogs are taught to ring the bells to let their owners know when nature is calling.    

“We used to buy outside the U.S. but logistically it was very difficult,” says Pederson. “We like Bevin Brothers better because they can accommodate our custom needs. The bells are made with small openings so claws don’t get stuck in them, and they are embossed with a little paw print. We are very proud to offer our customers a product that is made in the U.S.”

As to how the bells are made, the process at Bevin Brothers has changed a bit in the past hundred years. Due to stringent environmental regulations, for example, bells are no longer cast from molten metals. Instead, they are crafted via a stamping process from large coils of copper, brass or steel that are fed through a press. A die is used to cut out the bell shape.

Once the bells are formed, they are cleaned with mineral spirits and dried by hand (instead of by machine) in a rolling barrel filled with corn dust to prevent scratching. Next, the bottoms are trimmed and rounded to eliminate sharp edges. The finish is dictated by the type of bell—hand bells are buffed, ice cream bells are lacquered, ornamental bells are plated, and some bells are powder-coated in a specific color. Once the finish has been added, small dangling clappers are inserted, and wood handles or plastic straps are attached.

Like his forebears, Matt feels a deep responsibility to leave his family’s legacy on solid ground for the next generation, which is challenging since he manufactures a product that few people actually need.

Yet, “There is something universal about the sound of a bell—it conjures up memories that connect us to humanity,” Matt says. “Even though you could recreate that sound electronically with your iPhone, it’s not the same. It doesn’t have the tangibility, the movement of the clapper, the feeling, the ringing. You can’t put a price on that. For those reasons I think bells have endured and will continue to endure.” 
Originally Published on Wednesday, December 03, 2014
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