Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Climbing the Bell Tower

My freelancing work for the local newspaper often gets me into places I wouldn't otherwise see. That was the case today. I've covered St. John's United Church of Christ in Germantown's plans for their bicentennial this summer. When I attended a meeting a couple of weeks ago, Dr. Noel Watson asked if I'd like to see the bell tower?
When I was a kid, Dad often suggested he could get me access to the tower at St. Jacob Lutheran Church in Miamisburg. It never happened, the years passed and with it the dream of ever scaling those heights.
But now I had a chance to see a bell tower, albeit not so high. No matter!
So on this hot summer afternoon (lower 90's) we walked into the air conditioned church, stepped into a space no larger than a closet and watched a metal ladder disappear up into the darkness. Dr. Watson led the group including Keith Groach (who mows his lawn), Benjamin Mersch, editor of the Germantown Press, Chris Meinke and myself.

The bell tower is, of course, the structure shown at the front of the church, on the front northeast corner.

Upon climbing the first metal ladder affixed to the wall, you come upon an opening and step out above the church's ceiling. This is a view to the south across that first opening. The timbers from the 1907 construction are visible here. The church, by the way, was first formed in 1809 by a group of German Reformed settlers who came to Germantown from Pennsylvania. They built their first church after 1830 and a fancier one in the 1860's. That one was destroyed by a tornado in 1907. Construction was begun then on the church we see today.

This brick opening leads from the first platform to another opening, this on the east side of the building (this picture was taken, however, facing west). Why this doorway is irregularly cut, who knows? It looks as though it was originally the size noted near the top and later expanded. Perhaps the bell didn't fit through? Or, more likely, the bell was hoisted up from outside.

Coming through that opening, there's this high area with tightly-packed steps which lead ever higher. See the windows? You can see them in the picture taken of the outside of the church part way up to the belfry. At top is Dr. Watson; below him is Mersch.
At the top you walk through another opening and step carefully on boards laid across the floor. Watch your step! If you step anywhere near the end of a long board, it teeters!

This shot (above) is of Watson (l) and Keith examining the bell. It's dated 1916 when it was recast; it weighs 1200 pounds. The bell will ring three times the actual date of their bicentennial: July 30, 2009 at 9 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. Watson rang it while we were there - once! - and it is deafening when standing so close.

Looking down from a perch on an aluminum ladder placed there, I wanted to give you a look at how the bell is mounted and how the floor is constructed. The rope that rings it (there are actually two) go through the floor beside Watson where the floor color is rusty (probably sawdust).

Bats in the belfry? Indeed! When we walked through the first landing, bats glided through the air like falling leaves. We hurried on. Here they're "stuck" behind poultry netting placed over the sound opening. Presumably the purpose of the fencing is to keep birds - and bats! - out. I believe the two bats are dead but they might have been spending a warm summer afternoon in upside-down slumber.
What's the risk with all the bat guano, I asked Watson. "Histoplamosis," he answered. I just sputtered a little and said if he found my name on his appointment book, he'd know why I wanted to see him.
A great afternoon. Finally, I've made it to the top of a bell tower.