Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
Doug Dilla pulled up outside the factory at 10 Bevin Road in East Hampton, Connecticut, 15 minutes after the fire department arrived. It was late on a Saturday night, Memorial Day weekend, 2012. All he could make out were flickering shadows of fire and smoke. Maybe, he thought, it's not so bad.
"Then once the first window blew out it, was like five seconds later the next window, the next window, the next window," recalls Dilla. "We'd just got done putting 85 new windows in the building. Took us like a year and a half. And we just watched them pop out one at a time."
The windows were the least of it. That night Bevin Bells, a bell maker, lost its factory, its machinery, its inventory--virtually every material trace of a history that dates to 1832, when William, Abner, Chauncey, and Philo Bevin started the company. Other bell makers have come and gone in East Hampton--more than 30 down through the years. Only Bevin has survived. Today it's the only company of its kind anywhere in North America.
"There was the concern by everybody that they would leave," says town manager Michael Maniscalco, who was interviewing for his current job that weekend. "But pretty quickly they came out and said they'd stay."
Dilla, who is part owner as well as general manager of Bevin Bells, spent the day after the fire scouting new locations in town, and calling nearby job shops for help filling orders. "We found a place about 40 miles away to blank 'em out for us" within two weeks, he says. "By then we had a couple of small presses and were able to do the other parts of it ourselves. We had people working on the dies salvaged from the fire, and every day another one would get cleaned up. There was never any thinking, 'Maybe not.'"
Bevin's endurance is testament to its products' eclectic roles in American life, from calling to the faithful from church steeples to calling to hungry children from Good Humor trucks. A Bevin bell appeared in It's a Wonderful Life, in the famous scene when baby Zuzu tells George Bailey (played by James Stewart), "Look, Daddy. Teacher says, every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings!" Will Ferrell clanged a Bevin bell in the classic Saturday Night Live skit, "More Cowbell."
Bevin Bells is also the main supplier to the Salvation Army. Joe Johnson, who handles purchasing for the Army's southeast region, which covers 15 states and the District of Columbia, orders about 50,000 Bevin Bells every summer, in time for holiday deployment. He says he wouldn't think of switching to a less expensive Chinese supplier. Not after Bevin "moved heaven and earth to make sure we got our bells" in time for Christmas after the 2012 fire. "They honored their commitment to us at their lowest point," he says. "That spoke volumes." How much is the bell-ringer campaign worth to the Salvation Army in the modern age of targeted appeals? About $147,000,000 last holiday season. Ching-ching-ching!
The bell tolls for an industry
Brothers William and Abner Bevin got their start as indentured servants to one William Barton, the original bell maker in what was then called Chatham, on the shores of Lake Pocotopaug. The lake and its streams had long provided power for factories involved in the forging and casting of iron and brass. These companies supplied the shipbuilding industry on the Connecticut River and nearby seacoast. Together they built a base of industrial knowledge that later allowed some to expand their product lines to include waffle irons, coffin trimmings, and all manner of bells--not just naval bells but also sleigh bells, tea bells, door bells, and church bells.
Chauncey Griswold Bevin, a member of the second generation, joined the family business after the Civil War. By the time he died, in 1948, Bevin Brothers was the established leader in a still-thriving domestic industry, with as many as 60 employees, and customers all over the world. But that was the peak. By the 1970s, Bevin was the last bell maker left, barely hanging on in the face of declining consumer demand and growing competition from foreign suppliers.
It was during those years that Cici Bevin, Philo's great-great-great-granddaughter, was growing up in western Pennsylvania, spending her summers on now-tranquil and pristine Lake Pocotopaug. That's when she first visited the old factory on Bevins Pond and began to feel the tug. It took a while to reel her in. She spent 30 years in marketing after college, mostly with a PR agency in Boston. But last fall she came home. "It's always been a part of my blood and heritage," she says.
Today Bevin Bells is fully resettled in a former wire-rack factory a short walk from the ruins of the old building. Twenty people work here, most of them on the factory floor, operating presses and packing orders for delivery. Many are faithful longtime employees who've hung around past normal retirement age. Sales last year were about $2.5 million, and "[we're] running at a flat to modest profit," says Cici Bevin. "We have the ability to carry some inventory."
The recovery took persistence; some luck ("If we couldn't have saved those dies we'd be out of business," says Dilla); a little help from Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, who secured $200,000 in state grants; and the deep pockets of former financier Matt Bevin, Cici's fifth cousin. Matt Bevin is the president of Bevin Bells. He also happens to be the Republican governor of Kentucky and a close ally of President Trump, but that's not something the business cares to promote. There's a picture of the governor on Bevin's website, but no mention of the office he holds. "I'd stay away from that," says Elizabeth Halvorson, founder of cowbells.com, a loyal Bevin customer for 20 years. "I have my own views, which I won't get into."
Seems like old chimes
Not least among the reasons Bevin Bells is still in business is the peculiar, enduring appeal of bells. Bevin doesn't forge big church bells anymore. Its most popular item is the Bevin 10 LD--a so-called long-distance cowbell, three and a half inches tall, which can be painted any color, emblazoned with your school mascot, and rung at sporting events.
Bevin still sells cowbells for actual cows, of course, and little bells to hang on walking sticks and dog collars so that hikers and their companions won't spook the bears. Also ice cream truck bells, palm-pat bells for requesting customer service, hammer bells for announcing the rounds at boxing matches, and big hand bells to sound the final lap at swim meets. Electronic beeps and alarms have replaced bells in many applications--phones, for instance. But swimmers still need something they can hear underwater, and many shopkeepers still opt for dependable, old-school chimes. "It's free once you put it up there," Dilla points out. "No battery, no nothing."
"Even though we've been around since 1832, and we're an old made-in-America company. Our products are still very functional today," Cici Bevin says. "It's not just about keeping history alive. This is a very vibrant category right now."
And Cici sees plenty of untapped potential. "No one's done sales or marketing here in decades," she says. "It's been answering the phone if somebody calls and filling the order. So my role here really is to drive growth. Win back some of what we've lost to imports and hopefully get new customers who haven't thought about making bells part of their thing." She hopes to persuade national hardware chains to put Bevin Bells display boxes in their stores.
Memorial Day will mark five years since the fire. How does Dilla plan to observe the anniversary? He sighs: "By coming in the next day and going to work."