EAST HAMPTON, Conn. – The 180-year-old New England company that made the little bell that rings every time an angel gets its wings in the Christmas classic "It's a Wonderful Life" has resumed production in time for the holidays, four months after its 19th-century factory burned down.
Over the past few weeks, employees working at a temporary factory set up in a rented warehouse across the street from Bevin Bros. Manufacturing Co. began filling customer orders, including the annual one from the Salvation Army for the steel and brass bells it uses during its kettle drives.
The resumption of bellmaking, announced with fanfare Wednesday by Matthew Bevin, the sixth-generation owner of Bevin Bros., was welcomed by many in Belltown USA, as this town of 13,000 people 20 miles from Hartford has long called itself. Bevin Bros. is the last bell manufacturer in a town that had more than 30 of them generations ago.
Eric Fuller, an assistant manager at a hardware store, said it would be difficult to imagine an end to the company in a town where even the public school mascot is the bell-ringer. Bells are pictured on the town seal and on street and welcome-to-East Hampton signs.
"It's the town's identity," he said. "It's important for the long-time residents."
Matthew Bevin, a 45-year-old businessman who fondly recalls putting "tongues" on bells as a child and now lives in Louisville, Ky., has vowed to build a new factory to replace the one destroyed by fire during a lightning storm May 27.
He said he is doing it for the employees and the town, and was inspired by his ancestors, who managed to keep the company afloat through technological change, the Depression and cheap oversees competition.
"We're fortunately wired not to quit," he said.
Some employees wiped away tears as they listened to Bevin's announcement.
Austin Gardner, 72, a tool-and-die maker who has worked at the factory for 20 years, said the employees are extremely loyal and happy to get called back. So far, 14 of the 27 employees are back on the job, he said.
"They're grateful to have a job, especially in this economy," Gardner said. He added: "I don't think anybody else would have done what Matt's doing. There's not a whole lot of money to be made in this business."
Bevin Bros. Manufacturing was started in 1832 by four brothers. It made sleigh bells, school bells, wedding bells, doorbells, ship's bells. Bevin Bros. also claims to have invented the bicycle bell. For many years, the New York Stock Exchange opened and closed with a Bevin bell. And the USS Maine, destroyed by an explosion in 1898 that triggered the Spanish-American War, had a bell made by Bevin.
The company also boasts of making the little bell in the beloved 1946 Jimmy Stewart movie "It's a Wonderful Life."
Workers at Bevin Bros. feed massive coils of brass and steel into presses, which stamp out the bells using heavy dies that were recovered from the ruins of the burned-down factory and refurbished.
Bevin said he has spent several hundred thousand dollars on getting the temporary factory running and has no estimate of how much the new one will cost or when it will be ready.
He said he had no fire insurance on the old building, which he had just finished renovating before the blaze, but has received some insurance proceeds against a work stoppage, as well as a state matching grant.
Since the fire, residents have brought bells that have been in their families for years to show Bevin, urging him to keep the company going.
"I've seen glimpses of what it means to them," he said. "And that matters to me."
Michael Maniscalco, town manager, said many people in East Hampton had forgotten why it was dubbed Belltown USA. Now, he said, everyone knows, and folks are inspired by Bevin and his efforts to resurrect the company.
"It's definitely renewing a spirit within our community," he said. "I can see that from this we're going to grow."
Associated Press writer Michael Melia in Hartford, Conn., contributed to this story.