Tugging chains in the St. Matthew’s Cathedral Parish bell tower Wednesday, Punch Williamson rang a rendition of “Amazing Grace” across Laramie.
Connected to bell hammers above his head, the chains rewarded each of Williamson’s sharp pulls with a solitary note that reverberated down the stone tower.
“You have to pull things so fast that you have to play songs very slow,” the 76-year-old St. Matthew’s Cathedral Parish Senior Warden said.
The cathedral’s 11-bell ring is the largest in the state and was installed more than a century ago, Williamson said.
“They started building the tower in 1916,” he said. “It was all complete in 1917, and the bells were first chimed in September 1917.”
To celebrate the first chiming, St. Matthew’s is hosting The Centennial of the Bells, Chimes and Clock on Saturday and Sunday.
Sifting through the cathedral archives, Dan Nelson, a 70-year-old retired history teacher and lifelong congregation member, discovered a copy of the pamphlet handed out at the first chiming.
“Some of Sunday’s songs were selected from the original program,” Nelson said. “Because Saturday is game day, we’re going to play ‘Ragtime Cowboy Joe,’ ‘Home on the Range’ and other similar tunes.”
Completed in 1896, St. Matthew’s was first built without a bell tower, because of a lack of funds, he said. After Edward Ivinson’s wife, Jane, died in 1915, Nelson said Laramie’s premier philanthropist donated $60,000 to the cathedral for the addition of the tower and bell ring.
“He also gave a big portion when they built the church 1892,” he added.
Williamson said while the funds were applied to construction efforts, the bells themselves were donated.
“Bells were gifted within the religious communities back then,” he said. “Often larger churches would gift old bells when they got new ones.”
An important feature for a community, Williamson said bells were not just religious symbols, but communication systems.
“Bells were the emails of the past,” he explained. “The bell was the way of informing the town something was going on like a fire or a natural disaster.”
Climbing a narrow steel ladder into the belfry, Williamson traced the elaborate system that allowed the bells either be played on the organ or by hand.
“The bells were here when the organ was put in — in 1926,” he said. “(Earnest Skinner) said, ‘Why don’t I make you ringers for the organ?’ He then designed and built this system for us.”
Integrating electrical wiring and pneumatic piping, the system signals a burst of air to fill a bellows, which pushes a board down pulling the bell chain.
“Skinner was the Packard of organs — he was the very best,” Williamson boasted. “He was absolutely brilliant.”
At the top of the belfry, a massive bell crowned the bell ring.
“This is the Tom bell — the lowest (toned) bell is always called the Tom,” he said. “It has an inscription dedicating it to Mrs. Ivinson, but it’s the only bell with a dedication.”
Nelson said the Tom bell had to be designed three times, because the original two designs were so large the bell would’ve hit the sides of the tower when rung.
All 11 bells can be rung with either a clapper or a hammer, but the Tom can also be operated with a pulley system, allowing the bell to swing side to side and amplifying the sound, Williamson said.
Inside the smaller bells, white marks intermittently circled the rim.
“The key with a bell is to turn it regularly if possible,” he said. “This helps prevent the bell from fracturing by always being hit in the same place.”
Although seemingly archaic, bells have stood the test of time as symbols of religion and communication, Williamson said.
“We forget that bells were made in China as early as 3000 B.C.,” he said. “So bells have existed as a means of communication for a very long time.
“Just standing near the Tom as it rings, you hear all those fantastic harmonics. So, all of that was magic to (people throughout history).”
St. Matthew’s Cathedral Parish, 104 S. Fourth St., first celebration of the bell ring is scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. Saturday, and the second is slated for 4 p.m. Sunday.