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Gunnison bell ringers, fiddler and strawberry festival part of annual TAUNY legends

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CANTON — The bell ringers at Gunnison Memorial Chapel at St. Lawrence University have rung up legendary status.

The ringers are among those who will be honored this year by Traditional Arts in Upstate New York at an Oct. 13 ceremony.

The annual Heritage Awards given by Canton-based TAUNY recognize individuals, families and community groups that have mastered traditional north country arts and customs and remain committed to passing them on to future generations.

For Varick A. Chittenden, director of special projects at TAUNY, the award to the Gunnison ringers is particularly sound.

“I’ve been on the St. Lawrence campus so frequently over the last half century — as student, staff member and neighbor — and heard the bells so often, I’ve almost taken them for granted,” he said. “I find this tradition especially interesting and different for TAUNY to recognize with a Heritage Award.”

Also honored this year are Leon W. Boyea, traditional dance fiddler from Burke, Franklin County, and the Wadhams United Church of Christ annual strawberry festival, Essex County.

Since 1926, when alumnus Irving Bacheller created the endowment and donated the Bacheller Memorial Chimes to SLU, students have been responsible for playing the 10 bronze bells to denote the end of the workday and special events. Student bell ringers are trained in the ancient art by other students. Alumni bell ringers sometimes return to play as well.

Many former bell ringers are north country natives. For example, the bell-ringing task strikes a dedicated chord for the Merrell family of Lowville.

“There’s a wonderful camaraderie,” state Supreme Court judge Charles C. Merrell said of the Gunnison Chapel bell ringers.

At least one other Lowville resident, Dr. Lynn A. Stacey, a dentist, is an SLU alumna who also rang the bells, Judge Merrell said. She’s just one of several former ringers dotting the north country landscape.

The first in the line of the Merrell family to ring the bells was 1948 SLU graduate Dr. John S. Miller, who was a cousin of Judge Merrell. Dr. Miller, a dentist, died in 2012.

Next in line for the Merrell family bell ringers was Nathaniel B. Merrell, who became a district attorney and judge in Lewis County. He was Judge Charles Merrell’s uncle and died in 2010.

Judge Charles Merrell was the next in the family of ringers — from 1978 until he graduated from SLU in 1981. Next was his son, C. Alex Merrell, who began ringing in 2009 and graduated from SLU in June. C. Alex is the most recent and 17th member of the Merrell family to attend SLU since 1886.

Concerning the TAUNY recognition, Judge Charles Merrell said, “I think it’s a wonderful recognition of a long tradition that has occurred in Canton since the 1920s.”

The bells, which were cast by the Meneely Bell Co. of Troy, range in diameter from 18 inches to 4 feet; the largest weighs a ton and would cost at least $95,000 today ($90,000 more than the cost of all 10 bells in 1926).

The bells are played from a wooden box that resembles a piano, but has levers instead of keys. Bells are connected by cables to a set of 10 wooden levers or batons in a lower room in the bell tower and each can be rung with about 10 to 15 pounds of pressure.

“When I was chiming, and when John chimed, the levers were attached to wooden rods that went up through the ceiling to the bells,” Judge Charles Merrell said.

In 1994, the wooden rods and leather straps connecting the keyboard and the clappers were replaced with cables and hinges. It once took 20 to 25 pounds of force to play one bell.

“You don’t have to jump up as hard now,” Judge Charles Merrell said. “Every time you went up to play, it was a workout. I used to have callouses on my hands — just to get the levers down to have the clapper hit the bell hard enough.”

The first song played every day, always at 5 p.m., is “Westminster Changes.” The sessions conclude about 30 minutes later with SLU’s “Alma Mater.” In between, bell ringers can play whatever they want as long as there’s sheet music for the selections.

“Because we are limited in the amount of notes we have, all of our music is in the key of B flat,” C. Alex Merrell said. “The bell ringers, over the years, have transcribed music of what they wanted to play and they leave it in the books. We have a pretty large variety of music.”

But learning that music can be disconcerting.

“There’s no place to practice except on the bells,” C. Alex Merrell said. “When you practice, the entire campus can hear you. That’s kind of intimidating.”

But picking out personal selections can be rewarding. Judge Charles Merrell recalled one particularly satisfying bell session that occurred on Feb. 22, 1980, when the U.S. Olympic team beat the Russians at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. Immediately after the game, he called then-SLU president Frank P. Fiscor and asked if he could ring the bells. When his wish was granted, patriotic songs rang out over campus.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the student bell ringer received full tuition to St. Lawrence University as compensation for ringing the bells.

These days, players receive payment just as they would for any other campus job. There are usually two or three ringers.

“I considered it the best-paying job on campus,” Judge Charles Merrell said.

n n n

Other honorees at TAUNY’s Oct. 13 Salute to North Country Legends:

n Every year residents of Wadhams look forward to the annual June strawberry festival sponsored by the United Church of Christ (formerly the First Congregational Church).

Now in its 147th year, the event is held in the parish hall and on the church grounds. While there’s music and other festivities, strawberry shortcake is the highlight each year, dished out by the women of the church.

n A retired farmer, Leon Boyea started playing fiddle at the age of 8. He played his first dance when he was 10. In high school he played with a Future Farmers of America group and won a state talent show in Baldwinsville.

Over the years, Mr. Boyea has played with local bands such as the Old Timers and the Settlers Band. He now performs with the Border Ramblers.

In 2007, he was inducted into the North American Fiddlers Hall of Fame in Osceola.


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