For nearly 170 years, the Main Building’s voice has rested in the top of its west tower in the form of a 700-pound bell.
Wofford’s bell was cast by the Meneely Bell Foundry in West Troy, New York. Andrew Meneely started the foundry in 1826, after an apprenticeship with Julius Hanks, who was one of the earliest bell founders in America. (Hanks was a relative of Nancy Hanks Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s mother.) Meneely brought his oldest son, Edwin, into the family business, and after Andrew Meneely’s death in 1851, Edwin Meneely brought one of his brothers into the business. The two brothers continued to operate the foundry as Andrew Meneely’s Sons. When a third brother, Clinton Hanks Meneely, returned from the Civil War, the first two brothers refused to take him into the company. This led to the formation of a second Meneely Foundry in 1870, across the river in Troy, NY.
Together, the two Meneely companies produced an estimated 65,000 bells. Their bells hang in churches and colleges throughout the United States. Bell experts regard Meneely products as being among the finest cast in America. Both companies went out of business in the early 1950s, due partly to increasing metal prices and partly to the increasing popularity of electronic bells and chimes. Because of the Meneely family’s position as being among the earliest and foremost bell founders, a Meneely bell today can be a valuable artifact.
Bell casting is both an art and a science. Before casting can take place, a bell must be carefully designed. The founder first builds an inner core, then uses molding clay to create a false bell. The inscriptions are added to the surface of the false bell, then an additional layer of fine molding material is added to the surface. The founder then builds an iron case around the false bell, filling it with molding material as the sections are added. When finished, the outer mold is lifted off, the false bell broken away, and the two halves of the bell mold are fitted together. The founder pours molten bronze into the mold, and the bell is allwed to cool in the ground for several weeks. The founder has many anxious moments before he can test the bell’s tone, for despite his best efforts, the product can still be a dud.
A bell’s pitch depends on its weight, and the metal must be tapered in thickness to ensure that it is in tune. When struck, a bell produces a chord of five separate pitches, including the note for which it is pitched, a minor third, a perfect fifth, and an octave above the strike note, and a hum tone that is an octave below the strike note. Each note reverberates from a different part of the bell.
The Wofford bell, inscribed “From Meneely’s, West Troy, NY, 1854,” weighs approximately 700 pounds. The bell is 33 inches in diameter and is supposedly pitched at “B,” though it might actually be a little higher It is held in place by heavy oak timbers about 20 feet below the apex of the west tower roof. Cast in bronze, the bell was for years rung by a rope attached to a wooden wheel five-feet in diameter. The wheel turns the bell, causing it to strike the clapper.
James H. Carlisle, Jr., a member of the class of 1885 and son of the College’s third president, wrote in his Memories of Wofford College manuscript, held in the college archives, that the original faculty members and their wives all went to see the bell before it was placed in the tower. “This bell,” Carlisle wrote, “has always been noted for the purity and clearness of its tone. Farmers living four miles from the city tell the time of day by the ringing of the bell.”
Vanderbilt Chancellor James H. Kirkland, a member of Wofford’s class of 1877, once spoke of the meaning that the bell held for many Wofford graduates. “Today my dreams are realized; once again I walk this sacred campus; and with every step… I feel new strength enter my frame, new courage my heart, and the tones of the old college bell seem to ring out a kindly greeting to the long-absent son.”
When he was the editor of the Old Gold and Black in 1937, Dr. Lewis P. Jones ’38 climbed into the bell tower to survey the campus and examine the bell. “One rarely notices the bell,” he wrote, “yet it is the main regulator of life at Wofford.” Counting the number of rings each time the bell signaled a class change, Dr. Jones found that the clapper struck the bell some 1,300 times each week. Generations of Wofford students made bell-ringing into a part time job, earning scholarships by signaling class changes each day.
Throughout the years, the bell has been the object of student pranks. The rope has occasionally been cut and the bell’s clapper has been removed on occasion, perhaps by students hoping to postpone a test. The clapper, the device that actually makes the bell ring when the rope is pulled, was also occasionally stolen by students from other colleges as an intercollegiate prank. At some point, the clapper either was not replaced properly or was replaced with an inferior part. Since that time, the bell’s volume has decreased.
In the summer of 2001, the college restored the bell’s volume. Some of the repairs included carpentry work on the tower stairs and landings. The Verdin Company, a nationally known clock and bell firm headquartered in Cincinnati, installed a new clapper and related hardware. Additionally, the Verdin Company installed a new striking mechanism that allows the bell to be rung by a digital bell controller. This controller can be programmed to ring the bell automatically, at specified times throughout the day. On Founder’s Day, October 19, 2001 the inaugural bell ringing was the featured event of a lunchtime ceremony commemorating the 221st birthday of Benjamin Wofford.
(This article originally appeared in the Fall 2001 Wofford Today and has been updated slightly in October 2022.)