OXFORD — Frank Hodson didn’t set out to be a bell keeper.
But after a career in anesthesiology and with time on his hands, the Oxford resident decided to save, restore and return a 144-year-old Blymyer-Norton bell to his parish, the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Woodstock, where it had previously hung in the belfry of the former church for more than 60 years.
The Blymyer-Norton bell is one of only 12 known 44-inch bells in the country and now, after a year’s restoration project, Hodson is now its official bell keeper.
For Hodson, the restoration will be complete once the bell is back on the church grounds.
“That’s not my bell,” he said. “It’s a bell I wanted to have welcomed back into the community.”
The 44-inch Blymyer-Norton bell was cast in 1873, the year Ulysses S. Grant was president of the United States, Jesse James and the James-Younger Gang pulled off their first successful train robbery, the first pair of Levi jeans was manufactured, E. Remington and Sons produced the first practical typewriter and the Preakness Stakes was first run in Baltimore.
Its early history is unknown, but in 1951, the bell was hanging in the Baptist Church in Sumner when the church building was deconstructed and then moved to Woodstock, where it was reconstructed and served as the new home for the Seventh-day Adventist Church on Perkins Valley Road until 2011.
That year, construction began on a new church and the accompanying school building after structural problems, including a rotting belfry in which the Blymyer-Norton bell had slipped, and forced parishioners to tear down the old complex and build a new one.
During the project, parishioners rolled the rusting and graffiti-laden bell into the nearby woods and covered it with a blue tarp. There it sat for the next several years.
“It (the bell) was dying and so was I,” said Hodson, who has been diagnosed with stage 4 prostate cancer.
Hodson said he continues to survive and he sees the bell as a survivor as well.
“I kept looking at that blue tarp,” Hodson said of his first view of the bell on the ground. “I pulled it back and I saw how rusted it was.”
With the help of two of his grandsons, using jacks and chains and lots of muscle, the bell was moved from the woods in Woodstock to his garage in Oxford last fall where it underwent a nearly yearlong restoration.
Hodson said he had no idea what he might be getting into.
“There’s no instruction manual that comes with these things,” he said.
The bell was covered with rust and graffiti, its clapper was broken and the wooden wheel that originally would have held the swing rope was long gone. The only identification mark that remained on the bell was “44,” the diameter of the bell. Even that marking was barely discernible just under the rusted bolt from which the bell hung.
Hodson said he recalls seeing other names that were engraved in a wood beam that was in the rubble when the church was razed in 2011. At the time, neither he nor anyone else realized the significance of it.
What church members didn’t know was that for probably decades, if not longer, men who had worked as the official bell keepers for the church had engraved their names on a wooden beam that held the bell.
The job of a bell keeper went out of fashion probably around World War II, Hodson said.
Regretfully, he said, that beam was discarded.
Hodson spent a lot of time sitting in his garage looking at the bell after it arrived and lots of time figuring out how to restore it. He reached out across the country from Tennessee to Vermont and beyond for help.
“It was possible,” he learned through conversations with others, but pricey. Someone gave him a $12,000 quote and Hodson decided to do it himself with the help of many.
Hodson, who has taken on other unique projects in the past, such as restoring vintage planes, said each contact helped him take another step in the restoration process.
“You learn from people,” he said of the sometimes small but still very important pieces of information, such as how to remove the rusty main bolt. He pried the bolt for at least a week using heat and oil and it didn’t budge. Then unexpected advice from an oil burner technician who used to work in a shipyard resolved the problem: use iodine.
“You learn all these things, pieces at a time,” he said of information and assistance he gathered from people like blacksmith Dereck Glaser, who is administrator of the New England School of Metalwork in Auburn and head instructor in the blacksmith department.
Glaser repaired the clapper and built the 5-foot-wide wheel that replaces the original wooden wheel, which held the rope pulley, Hodson said
The restoration was successfully completed recently and only cost Hodson less than $3,000.
“It’s a testament to not less than 10 to 12 people who went out of their way to help me,” Hodson said.
The future of the bell after it is returned to the church is not known yet.
A committee has begun meeting at the church to decide where and how they will hang the bell, and if they will name it – which was a popular thing to do in centuries past.
Each bell has its own personality, Hodson said.
If he had a choice he might call it Lazareth, because the bell was brought back to life.
Hodson said he is amazed that such a large bell ended up in Woodstock.
“How does it end up in a small church, in a small town on a back road?” Hodson asked.
Hodson said with the bell project now nearing conclusion, he is now looking for his next challenge.
He’s ready to take on saving another bell.
“This is marvelous,” he said about his recent bell restoration. “I’d love to do this for someone else. I would help save (another bell).”
Frank Hodson considers himself and this 144-year-old Blymyer-Norton bell to be survivors.
The bell is seen in 2011 when it last sat in the steeple of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Woodstock before it was torn down and rebuilt in Woodstock on the Perkins Valley Road.
The 44-inch Blymyer-Norton bell, cast in 1873, is one of only 12 known bells of its kind. It is the only one whose location is known.
The new Seventh-day Adventist Church, shown here with the adjoining school, will not have a bellfry. Parishoners are deciding where to put the bell.