The Sounds of Meeker Part 3: The Bell Tower

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The bell tower at St. James Episcopal Church is technically called a “carillon”. The bells you hear every day at 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. are electronic versions of various pieces.

MEEKER | When I am working in the yard, I love hearing the sounds of bells playing hymns that I often recognize and to which I can sing along. It is a lovely serenade that is comforting and joyous. But how did it work, I wondered? How is the music selected? What is the history of this sound of music heard daily in Meeker?

With the help of Father Scott Hollenbeck, Rector at the St James Episcopal Church, I got a personal tour of the carillon, as the bell tower is properly called. Sure enough, the carillon has a long heritage that traces back to the days of church bells played by pulling a long rope.

Today’s modern version is a digital, electronic carillon. Ever cheerful Father Scott showed me a rather small programmable computer, the device that is the core of the system and amplifies sounds through the bell tower.

This computer has pre-loaded music selections of all sorts that can be pre-programmed or changed at any time. Usually, we hear a mix of traditional music, but selections can also be made for civic tunes, weddings, funerals, high holy days, Lent, Thanksgiving plus endless other occasions. 

For example, it is even possible for a bride to select one specific piece she would like played at her wedding and key it in for that event! On July 4 we hear patriotic music and at Christmas the selections change to match that holiday.

Music can be programmed to play in three different voices — traditional, harp, and American bell (a slower, old-fashioned version). It can play just bell chimes in many versions too. These sounds are reminiscent of the celebration of World War II ending when bell towers rang out across the USA to announce the happy news or death of a president when the bells sound somber. 

In other words, the carillon music matches the situation. By the way, all this music was played live, recorded, and uploaded. It is not synthesized; it is the real thing. And, playing it publicly is protected under the freedom of speech laws.

The carillon plays two pieces daily at 10 a.m., 1 p.m., and 5 p.m. Why these times, I wondered, but it seems the answer is along the lines of “it has always been done this way” and the original reasons need more historical research. 

To the residents of Meeker, the carillon sounds are reminders to be on time! One old timer told me jury selection was once interrupted to listen to the music. Meeker visitors often visit the church with inquiries about the sounds they hear and wonder about its origins. 

The current carillon was gifted by the Reuben Oldland family in memory of Eva Oldland, a talented musician who sang at every church service, wedding, and funeral for years. A plaque is installed at the entrance to the sanctuary about this gift. Later, recently deceased Norma Oldland, paid for the costs of repairs and many other congregants have contributed to its maintenance.

The current carillon systems are working fine. These include a backup system that prevents loss of data due to incidental events (just like any computer). If the computer malfunctions, it can be shipped back to Cincinnati, Ohio, to the manufacturer, the Verdin Company, who has been in business forever and even sends a loaner machine. 

Yet, like all technology, change is likely including the upscale use of a smart phone to program the carillon. Thus, Father Scott could be anywhere and still adjust the bell tower music as needed if that upgrade occurs. 

The St. James Episcopal Church carillon has many deep roots (more than I had time to research) and provides a traditional, daily sound unique to our town. 

I am grateful to Father Scott, the Oldland family, and church members who graciously provided information for this story. Upcoming are more articles about the “Sounds of Meeker.”

By Kaye Sullivan | Special to the Herald Times