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Tioga County Historian Solves 100 Year Old Mystery

Tioga County Courthouse Bell

The Long Search
by Emma M. Sedore
Tioga County Historian

     At first, I told myself, “It’s just a bell,” but after 23 years, it took on a life of its  own. It wasn’t just any old bell; it was the first bell that hung in the cupola of the Tioga County Courthouse that was built in Owego, NY in 1823.

     The bell was ordered by the Tioga County Board of Supervisors in November 1855, the year they renovated the old courthouse.  They allowed the county clerk to pay $300 for it from the Meneely Bell Company, of West Troy, NY. but the actual cost was only $200.

     My search began in 1997 after reading an account in a 1931 newspaper regarding the lowering of the four towers on the present courthouse because of deterioration. They would be too costly to repair, especially in the middle of the Great Depression. Rather than rebuild them as they were originally designed, it was decided to lower them and hire noted architect, Arthur N. Gibb, of Ithaca to redesign them.

      What caught my eye in the article was the mention that the bell of sessions would be removed from the southwest tower and would not be needed by the county any longer. I found that it was the original bell taken from the first courthouse and then used in the new one after it was built in 1872-73 to call court into session.

     It went on to say that the Village of Owego was given permission to loan it to the Croton Hose Fire Co. No. 3 as an alarm bell. To check the facts, I found the following in the Journal of Proceedings (the county’s minute books) dated September 14, 1931. A RESOLUTION was moved and adopted which read in part: “Croton Hose Fire Dept. on Talcott Street, with the stipulation that when the Fire Dept. did not need the bell any longer, it was to be returned to the county.” In 1952, Croton Hose switched from the bell to a siren.

     My first question was, “After switching to the siren, where did the bell go?” I was excited, thinking I might get to see it, but it was not to be. After calling the fire department, I was permitted to review their 1953 minute book, but it was incomplete. In the April 29, 1953 minutes, it read in part: “It was agreed that we suggest that the board donate the bell to a worthy church who does not have a bell” and a motion was made and passed. The following month, in the May 27, 1953 minutes, in part: “The bell has been offered to Lounsberry Church and they have accepted tentatively, pending agreement by trustees.” I could understand why they chose that church, because in October 1952, their old church burned to the ground in Nichols, NY and they immediately started to make plans to rebuild a new one.

     I called a few people who were trustees on the church board at the time to confirm that they accepted the bell from the Croton Hose Co. in Owego. One of the trustees called me back to tell me “No, the bell they have came from a church that was flooded over for the Cannonsville Reservoir in Delaware County., NY.”

     That threw me for a loop and my wild goose-chase began! I was disappointed, because I felt so sure it was the bell of sessions. However, I wanted definite proof that the bell really did come from Cannonsville and over the years I brought up the subject to numerous people whom I thought could shed some light on it. I even had it in the newspaper a couple of times. I contacted the Delaware County Historical Society and their local historian who has been there for a long time. I researched the history of the reservoir and the churches that were located there.  I read newspaper articles and checked a book about the flooding of the town and much more, but to no avail.

     In the meantime, I read in a local newspaper that the Owego Fire Department’s Hose Team planned to build a steamer house to display their 1866 Amoskeage Steam Pumper and their 1939 Sanford Hose truck. Most importantly, it also noted that a steeple will enclose an antique bell. My heart leaped when I read “antique bell.” I immediately contacted the fire chief to verify where they were getting the bell from. I filled him in on the history of the bell of sessions and my long search for it. Happily, I found out I was dealing with a kindred spirit. He replied to all my emails and phone calls; but the most generous thing he did for me was to use his valuable time to get permission from the pastor of the church to allow him to climb up into the bell tower and take a few pictures of it. Along with Meneely’s name on the bell, one of the pictures shows the number 185 on it. We both agreed that this must be the bell we were looking for, but still more proof was needed that it did not come from Cannonsville.

     As time passed, I contacted the New York State Education Department and the NYS Library’s Manuscript and Special Collections section about having records of the Meneely Bell Company, in West Troy, NY. I hoped they would have a copy of the original bill of sale to Tioga County, dated November 1855, but no luck. However, they did recommend that I get in touch with the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway, Burden Iron Works Museum, Troy, NY because they have a collection of Meneely records. I sent an email to them right away detailing my search.

     To my delight, I heard back the very next day from the Executive Director of the museum. Although he didn’t have any 1855 receipts I was looking for, he enlightened me regarding the number 185 on the bell. He said that the missing number might be because the mold for the bell was formed in late 1855 (Nov.) and the stamper wasn’t sure if the owners wanted 1855 or 1856, he left it unfinished “for now,” but it was overlooked. It was determined that recasting new molds was cost prohibitive and because of that, the foundry would sometimes grant a price reduction. That answered my question of why the final report of county expenses noted that although the Board of Supervisors allowed the clerk to spend $300 for a bell, but his claim was only for $200.

     My most recent contact was a call to the secretary of the church to see if she would delve into the church’s 1953 archives and re-check the minutes that the trustees might have overlooked. The bad news was, that because of a flood, many of their records were either destroyed or damaged. However, she was of the opinion the bell did come from a church in Cannonsville. I did not agree and asked her to please keep searching. I even promised that if she found the answer, I would send a donation to the church. I honestly did not expect to hear from her again, but one evening she called back. I thought she was going to say she found proof that the bell was from Cannonsville, or that she didn’t find anything at all. She contacted a woman who had possession of a souvenir booklet that was distributed to church members the day the new building was formally rededicated on April 3, 1955. The second page listed the names of everyone who contributed to the building of the new church. As she read line 15 to me, I almost fell off my chair in disbelief. It read: “Owego Fire Department - Bell.” It was like music to my ears. She generously sent me a copy that made my day (and yes, I generously sent a donation to the church.) My goose-chase was finally over!

     Since then, I have reported my findings to the Tioga County, NY Legislators and at my request, they wrote a new Resolution (in part): RESOLVED: The Bell of Sessions is a historical artifact and is legally the property of Tioga County, NY and must be returned to Tioga County, NY if the Lounsberry United Methodist Church deems it is no longer of use to them or upon request of the County for any reason.

     Finally, the dreadful year of 2020 ended on a high note for me by proving my twenty-three-year search wasn’t just for any old bell after all!