Presented by the Laurens County Historical Society, Dublin, Georgia. For questions and information, please contact Scott B. Thompson, Sr. at dublinhistory@yahoo.com.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

LET FREEDOM RING!


Our Famous Bells


When we think of the most enduring symbol of American Independence, some might think of fireworks.  This mainly modern pyrotechnic display  pales in comparison  to the sight of the American flag waving in the wind.  No symbol still reverberates the sound of Independence like the bell and in particular, the Liberty Bell of Independence Hall in America's ancient capital of philadelphia.  Since the early Middle Ages, church bells have rung to celebrate the presence of Christ. In July 1776, the Liberty Bell was rung to announce America's freedom from England.   The common use of bells in our area were by farmers, who used smaller bells to proclaim the end of a work day or to signal the farmhands that it was time to eat.  These famous bells haven't hung in a church or weren't fastened to the side of a barn, they have been suspended in the bell towers of our government buildings.  This is the story of three of the more famous bells in Laurens County.

The first known courthouse bell was placed in the bell tower of the county's first brick courthouse, which was completed in 1895.  The bell rang hailing the aging heroes of the Confederate army as they gathered for reunions and Confederate Memorial Day celebrations.  

The bell, three feet in diameter, signaled the end of World War I, the "War to End All Wars."   The ringing of the bell started in somewhat of a comedy of errors.  In the predawn hours of a November morning, a call was made from the offices of the Macon Telegraph to Dublin mayor Isadore Bashkinski  that the Armistice had been signed in France.    The peace accord designated that the war, which resulted in the deaths of more than twenty millions souls and injuries to another twenty million combatants and civilians, would end on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.    Locally, the time was 6:00 o'clock on the morning of November 11, 1918.

Some joker got the jump on the official bell ringers and called in a false alarm to the fire department, then located in the City Hall across the street on the northern side of the courthouse square.  Before the echoes of the fire bell subsided, someone began to hammer the bell in the courthouse tower.  Within a quarter of an hour, more than one half of the city's male population turned out to celebrate the end of war.  

Shortly after the ringing of the bell to open that day's sessions in the schools, a holiday was declared.  Students poured into the streets like ants at a picnic.  The celebration lasted throughout the day.  Several boys banged one bell for more than a solid hour, perhaps not so much to celebrate the end of the war, but a day long recess.    Bells continued to ring all over the city.  Grown men cheered and hollered. One reporter compared their celebration to a  group of young boys playing. Firecrackers popped.  Businesses closed.  The jubilee ended that night  with a gathering of thanksgiving and speeches at the courthouse.

During the gubernatorial campaign of 1934, candidate Claude Pittman was scheduled to speak at the courthouse.  The janitor climbed to the clock tower to alert the townspeople. The bell was designed to be rung by pulling a rope attached to a big wheel.  The rope had frayed and would no longer work.   The janitor climbed a ladder and struck the bell, presumably with a hammer or some metal object.   As he struck the bell, it cracked upward from the base.

County officials knew that they would need to acquire a new bell since the crack could not be repaired.  The cost of a new bell could have run as high as $2000.00.  The commissioners turned to scrap metal dealer P.M. Watson.  Watson agreed to sell a slightly smaller bronze bell to the county for $100.00.  Despite its smaller size, the bronze bell's vibrations would carry further than the iron one's.

That bell, which dated back to 1908, came from neighboring Dodge County.  Watson purchased the bell in 1939 after the courthouse fire thinking it might be of further use.   Until Howard Edwards came along with an idea on how to put the bell up in the tower, the old Dodge County bell sat out in front of the courthouse waiting to be hoisted up to its perch.  Edwards had to remove one of the four pillars of the tower to get the bell inside.

That pillar bore the scars until the old Laurens County Courthouse was razed in 1963.  Dubliner W.W. Walke purchased the bell and donated it to Christ Episcopal Church, where it is still in use today.  The plans to build an elaborate bell tower beside the church  never materialized.  For some time, the bell was turned upside down and used as a planter.  One man in charge of ringing the bell drilled a hole in so that he could ring the bell from the inside of the Church using a long thin wire
attached to the hole.

You may have wondered what happened to the old original Laurens County courthouse bell.  Remember the year it was removed.  Mr. Watson sent the old bell, which had signaled so many important events in our history, to perform one more patriotic duty.  The bell was melted down and used in the war against Germany and Japan in one final act of the fight for liberty.

The  city of Dublin refurbished the former Hilton Hotel on the courthouse square into a city hall. John Kelley, Dublin's premier contractor, was hired to do the work.  As a part of the renovation work, Kelley and his crew installed a one ton bell in the top of the courthouse.  The three thousand pound bell was dubbed "Big John" in honor of Alderman Kelley, who also supervised the work on behalf of the city.   The fire department devised a process where the  number of rings of the bells indicated what quadrant of the city the fire was occurring.  Alarm boxes were placed at various locations throughout the city.  When the alarm button was pushed, a particular box rang in the fire department office.  Then the bell was sounded to reflect the location of the fire.

There is one old tale of a man who always kept his ear open for the sound of the fire bell.  Upon the ringing of the bell, the man would proceed rapidly to the fire, climb on the roof, and break open holes in the roof with his ax.  Ignorant of the draft he was causing in doing so, many houses were lost.  Some sarcastic Dubliners stated that the motto of their fire department was "we never lose a chimney."  

When the City of Dublin moved to its new quarters in 1959, the old city hall was doomed to demolition.  In 1960, the building was razed.  Local scrap metal dealer, P.M. Watson, Jr., purchased the bell.  His workers had an extremely difficult time in taking the bell out of the building.

The bell remained at Watson's place of business until Alonzo Boardman of Augusta came along.  Boardman had to have the bell.  He bought it and made arrangements to have it shipped to his garden fifteen miles from Augusta at Bath, near the notorious Tobacco Road.    Dogwoods, azaleas, and other varieties of plants adorned the Boardman home, which was modeled on an Austrian village.   Boardman's garden, known as Austrian Valley, was located on a 47 acre tract with lakes, fountains, terraces, and a hillside lodge near the Augusta National Golf Club. 

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