GAINES TWP. — It had been heard, but not seen, for more than 50 years.
When the congregation at Swartz Creek Church of the Nazarene decided to place a cross atop the steeple, they had no clue what they were getting themselves into.
“The intention was to clean the spire and put the cross on,” said Mike Ahearne, one of the project volunteers. “But when they got up there, they found the whole thing was pretty rotten inside. It couldn’t be saved. And they ended up tearing it down to the frame.”
In doing so, they uncovered the church bell, which had been housed in a louvred belfry since 1968.
The bell’s origins, however, likely date back another 100 years to one of the defining legacies of Swartz Creek- area history: the Crapo Farm.
Henry Howland Crapo established the 1,100-acre farm in 1860 in parts of what are now Gaines Township and the City of Swartz Creek. Michigan’s 14th governor and Flint’s fifth mayor, Crapo raised Hereford cattle until his death in 1869. The farm remained in the Crapo family until 1955 when William Wallace Crapo II sold the property to the developers who built Winchester Village. Farm equipment was auctioned off in 1955.
“My grandparents (Bill and Carletta Henry) lived in a tenant farmers’ house on the farm,” said Lorraine Ahearne.
The Henrys raised 14 children, including Lorraine’s mother, Ella Mae Halka, who was the Henrys’ oldest child. Halka retrieved the bell.
“My mom hated waste,” Lorraine Ahearne said. “If she would see any kind of building going down, she’d go in and see if there wasn’t something she could save. My mom would go around and salvage things so they wouldn’t go in the dump, to preserve history. When the church was being built, she donated the bell so it would be in use and stay in Swartz Creek.”
Randy Henry, the youngest of Bill and Carletta Henry’s children, said his sister purchased the bell at the auction. He said he was very young and doesn’t recall much about life on the farm, but he remembers that he bought a bow and arrow for a quarter at the auction.
Ted Henry, another of Ella Mae’s brothers, said he called five of his siblings to find out more about the bell.
“We all tried to remember, and it all came back to this: It sat on a pole between the house where they served the meals and the house where they had the manager’s office,” he said. “There were five houses on the property, plus the governor’s mansion. They rang the bell for meals and in emergencies.”
The #7 cast iron bell has a 24-inch diameter, which is larger than the typical dinner bell of the era. It weighs about 100 pounds. The bell itself is rather plain, but the cradles feature ornate ironwork. There is no manufacturer’s stamp.
The Nazarene church originally was located on First Street in Swartz Creek. Construction of a new church began in 1967. On Easter Sunday 1968, a caravan of worshippers drove from the old church to the new church for the inaugural service.
Church members used to ring the bell before worship on Sunday mornings.
“We used to have Sunday school children come up and ring the bell,” said Mike Ahearne. “There’s a rope that comes down out of the ceiling, you can open a door to the right of the front door of the church (to access the rope). We used to ring it, four, five or six years ago.”
That practice resumed earlier this year.
“We have been ringing it for our 11 o’clock service the last couple of months,” said Pastor Josh McLaren. “I’ve been ringing it or I’ve had one of our greeters ring it as kind of a call to prayer.”
When the volunteers realized they needed to rebuild the tower, they decided to take advantage of the aesthetic value of the bell.
“When we had everything down on the ground, we kind of paused and realized that, since the old structure was so rotted and gone, we could do whatever we wanted,” McLaren said. “One of our board members, Rick Evans, said why not make the bell visible. We googled church steeples, saw a couple where you could see the bell, and thought it looked pretty sharp.”
The new belfry is octagonal with three 20-inch by 30-inch windows. The remaining sides will have bevels for acoustics and to protect the bell from the elements.
“We painted the bell a flat black,” Randy Henry said. “It’s going to look real pretty.”