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This Week's Poll



2-8-19

Stephen Foster houses the largest carillon tubular bell collection in world - In our backyard
Bells at Stephen Foster in need of repair

The beautiful carillon bell tower at Stephen Foster. -Photo: Florida Parks Service


By Tami Stevenson


Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park in White Springs draws thousands of visitors from all over the world each year. Befittingly nestled along the historic Suwannee River, the same river that composer Stephen Foster was so famously known for including in his song, “Old Folks at Home,” in 1851, the park has become a multi-cultural showplace of Florida history over the years.



The park also houses the largest carillon tubular bell collection in the world and it is in dire need of repair. Built in 1958, the 97 bell carillon is one of the largest musical instruments ever produced in the Western Hemisphere. It has admirably weathered the last 61 years. Visitors were awe struck by their unique sounds that could be heard throughout the entire park as the bells rang out renditions of Stephen Foster’s music, Christmas/Holiday music and other compilations. The bells also chimed on the hour and every quarter hour.


Above: Tubular bells and 3-tiered wooden frame holding up 27 tons for the last 61 years inside the beautiful carillon tower.
-Photo: Florida Parks Service



Unfortunately, the tower was struck by lightening during a storm in 2017, causing a short in the electrical system and the beautiful, unique sounds of the bells were silenced. The Stephen Foster Citizen Support Organization, Inc., (501(c)3) (SFCSO) is the main fundraiser for the carillon restoration. They diligently researched and sought proposals on what was needed to get the bells ringing again.


They found the Verdin Company. They have been creating and repairing bells and carillons for over 170 years.


Verdin got the bells ringing again last year but during the process, they found that there are many other repairs needed to fully restore the bells to their original glory. It is going to be a multi-phase project that will take years to complete but must be done in order to preserve this historical instrument and landmark.


According to Park Service Specialist Andrea Thomas, all of the steps required to simply get the bells ringing again was only the first half of phase one of the restoration process. The cost of phase one alone is $86,460.



The SFCSO has started a GoFundMe page. They are asking for donations to help offset the cost of phase one while they work towards obtaining federal and state grants that normally take two to five years to be awarded. The group did not want to see the bells silenced for that length of time as the carillon would have fallen into even more disrepair during that time if not working and being used.


Above and below: These cables shown here before they were replaced. They hold up the huge tubular bells. The largest bell weighs 430 pounds.
-Photos: Florida Parks Service



According to the SFCSO, it was built in 1958 by the carillon division of J.C. Deagan, Inc., out of Chicago. More than a year was required by Deagan craftsman to build the huge 27 ton set of bells, the greatest single manufacturing project in the firm’s 78 year history of originating and producing a variety of percussive musical instruments well-known throughout the world.


The brass tubular bells are made up of three full sets of 32 bells. The scales range from C-G in the chromatic scale and have a 4th high G bell. The largest bell, the low ‘C’ bell, is approximately 12.5 feet long and weighs a whopping 430 pounds. The smallest bell is the high ‘G’ bell and weighs around 70 pounds and is 3.5 feet long. Almost any song can be played from a special keyboard in the tower or from pre-punched scrolls that ring the bells, similar to a player piano. Some of the scrolls are so old they are made of onion skins and are still in use today. Some scrolls were made especially for the park by composer June Albright. Albright was one of Deagan’s carilloners and used to play frequently at Stephen Foster. There are very few carilloners left as it is a lost art.


The entire bell housing in the tower is made from huge wooden beams and supports 27 tons including the 97 bells, the strikers and dampers, etc. It is 21 feet high, 15 feet long and 11 feet wide.


A video of the photo above shows the electrical current as it strikes to ring each bell.
-Photo: Florida Parks Service



“Luckily there is not a whole lot of rot. But we do have rust and things in certain areas. We want to make sure this is something safe because we still have the museum and the displays and everything that is in the bottom of the tower.” Explained Thomas.



She said this list is just the first phase. It is not even getting into the restoration at this point. “When Verdin was here, they repaired a short in the wire between the control panel and the clock. They also cleaned and serviced the control clock, the roll player and replaced some of the cables and the striker heads (has rawhide tips) and some of the thimbles. Some of those cables were just falling apart,” said Thomas. “They were splitting.”


11 hour strike and daily on-off control.
-Photo: Florida Parks Service



At this point they are trying to get through all of the legalities of bringing everything up to code. Testing for asbestos and lead paint among other things. To get the testing done and bring it up to code while keeping the historical properties could be a long process but they cannot move forward until that is all done.



The next event at Stephen Foster is the Antique Arts and Collectibles show on March 16 with the Antique Car Show. The bells will be playing and park officials would like to invite everyone to come out not only for the show, but also to hear the bells play.



Donations to help with the restoration project can be made at the gift shop at Stephen Foster, by calling the park at 386-397-2733 or visit their GoFundMe page at www.gofundme.com/sfcso.



The strikers for the bells at Stephen Foster.
-Photo: Florida Parks Service


More of the electrical equipment that runs the 97 tubular bells in Stephen Foster’s carillon tower.
-Photo: Florida Parks Service



Some of the scrolls, shown in the player above, are so old they are made of onion skins and still play. Almost any song can be played on the bells either using the scrolls or on the special keyboard played by specially traines carollinneurs. -Photo: Florida Parks Service