Iconic Symbol

Jefferson County Commissioners place courthouse bell on public display

The bell was built in 1864 by
G.W. Coffin & Co. in Cincinnati

(January 2015)
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Don Ward

Many in the Madison, Ind., community will remember the day the Jefferson County Courthouse bell was lowered from atop the damaged cupola in the aftermath of the May 29, 2009, fire that destroyed the building. The 3,118-pound bell survived the fire and by some miracle did not fall through the ceiling during the blaze.
Nine days after the fire, workers lowered the bell onto Main Street, where a large crowd gathered to view it and the charred remains of thick, wooden beams that support it. Throughout the afternoon, onlookers snapped photographs and gawked at the large, steel bell, read the inscriptions and admired the handiwork of its maker, G.W. Coffin & Co. of Cincinnati. The company made the bell at its in 1864 Buckeye Foundry. It is tuned to the letter E, according to records, and has inscriptions all around the top, along with the date of its creation and maker’s name.
Some time after the bell was moved into storage at the county jail building behind the courthouse, Louisville-based H&D Professional Brass Polishing was hired to clean and polish the bell, using money provided by the insurance company from the fire. This was done when the company was in Madison to clean and polish the bell at the Walnut Street Volunteer Fire Department, according to Jefferson County Commissioner Tom Pietrykowski.

Courthouse bell1

Photo by Don Ward

From left, Madison Ironworks owner Doug Helton and employees Bobby Adams and Ricky Anderson set the Jefferson County Courthouse bell at its new resting place in a new pavilion built to house it.

“When the fire company had the company in town to clean its bell, we decided to go ahead and have them clean the courthouse bell. It really made a difference, especially after what it endured during the fire,” Pietrykowski said.
Finally, after more than five years, the courthouse bell has emerged from storage and on Dec. 18 was hauled out to a newly constructed pavilion on the courthouse west lawn and placed there for public display. A new plaque also has been created that details the history and statistics of the bell.
Pietrykowski, 60, who operates his own construction company, played a key role in the cleanup and reconstruction of the courthouse, helping to recruit and hire the companies that would eventually do the work and help guide the process along the way.
He lost his seat on the commission in the November election after serving in that capacity for eight years, so he took an active interest in seeing the bell placed on public display before his tenure ended at the end of 2014 – “and to do so without using any tax payers dollars,” he said.

Courthouse bell2

Photo by Don Ward

The courthouse bell survived the May 2009 fire and was later cleaned and placed in storage until it was brought out Dec. 18 to be placed on public display.

The money to display the bell eventually appeared in the form of a $7,000 grant two years ago from the Madison-Jefferson County Community Foundation. The money was used to buy the materials for the Madison Consolidated High School’s Building and Trades Class, led by teacher David Bear, to build the pavilion. They completed the project last fall. The county’s garage crew poured the concrete slab to support the bell inside the pavilion. An LED light was later installed to light the bell at night and highlight its intricate carvings.
“It took us so long that we went through two Building and Trades Classes,” Pietrykowski said.
Doug Helton of Madison Iron Works Inc. created wrought-iron fencing to surround the bell. His team of Bobby Adams and Ricky Anderson in December hauled the bell to its final resting place.
“This is one job I don’t want to mess up because if I drop this bell, I’ll have the whole town after me,” joked Adams, who drove the heavy-duty Bobcat carrying the bell from the jail building across the courthouse yard to the pavilion.
This bell is a replacement for the bell that was installed in the courthouse when it was new. According to information on file at the Jefferson County Auditor’s office, that bell was installed in the bell tower on Nov. 9, 1855, and dedicated on Dec. 27, 1855. Its purchase price, $742.29, was paid by “subscriptions” given by the people of Madison. Made by the West Troy Foundry in West Troy, N.Y., it was “warranted to have a tone that was pleasing.”
This original bell fell victim to fire just four years later, in 1859. During that fire, the bell fell through the roof and landed in the basement. The replacement bell was not made until five years later.

Courthouse bell4

Photo by Don Ward

The Madison Consolidated High School’s Building and Trades Class, led by teacher David Bear, built the pavilion last fall to house the courthouse bell.

The bell no longer has a clapper and cannot be rung. A digital carillon replaced the bell in the courthouse tower. The carillon has the ability to play prerecorded music at set times – for example, the Westminster chimes on the hour or patriotic music on holidays.
The last person to ring this Cincinnati-made bell was county maintenance employee Duane Hall, who hit it with a mallet 90 times to punctuate the names read during a crime victims’ rights ceremony in April 2009.
The commissioners held a dedication ceremony for the bell at its new resting place prior to their last meeting of the year, on Dec. 23, just in time for Pietrykowski to say a few words about the bell project before his departure from office. He said using free labor from two Building and Trades Classes was good for the county, financially, and also gives those students a chance to be a part of something special.
“I’m very glad we were able to complete this project because many people have never seen the bell,” he said. “To finally see the bell out there for public view is a good way to go out.”

• Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner of RoundAbout. Call him at (812) 273-2259 or email: Don@RoundAbout.bz.


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