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Students as Bell Ringers

The Tradition of Bell-Ringing at Dartmouth College

by Memory Apata, Music Library Supervisor

As an employee and graduate student of the college, the bells of Baker Tower are a staple of my day to day life.  When I hear them in the morning as I walk across the foggy green, the bells prompt me to enjoy a last sip of coffee before heading into the office.  At noon, they signal a moment of rest between meetings and occasionally incite a peal of laughter when the tune has inexplicably been changed to the theme from Harry Potter.  At six o’clock in the evening, the alma mater plays and I am struck by the Pavlovian urge to head to the local watering hole for a celebration of the long day’s work.  For me, the sound of the bells is what makes Dartmouth… well, Dartmouth.  More than anything, they encourage a sense of camaraderie and excitement for collaborative possibilities.  Their tunes are reflected in the surge of frenetic energy on the green as students hurry to their next classes. They unite the campus in a soundscape that is unique to Dartmouth, add a fullness to the environment, and amplify the hustle and bustle of the first few weeks of the new term.

alliaibelltower
Allie Ai climbs to the top of Baker Tower during library staff orientation in 2015.

Paddock Music Library’s interest in the history and maintenance of the Baker bells was renewed when they temporarily ceased to ring this summer due to construction.  It was nearly impossible not to notice their absence.  Many articles have been written in various Dartmouth affiliated publications about the bells, but what fascinated us most was the responsibility that students have historically taken for the college’s soundscape.   It does not surprise us that the connection between Dartmouth’s students and Dartmouth’s bells runs deep.  Students have served as bell ringers, horn blowers, and drum beaters since the college’s founding.  The call to prayer and recitation (classes) was sounded by the blast of a horn until the college received its first bell in 1780, which was housed at Dartmouth Hall.  After the arrival of the bell, a student was assigned each year as the bell ringer and received special lodgings in exchange for performing the early morning duties.  Yes.  Even in the 18th century, students still hated getting up early.  Does the quote below sound familiar?

“Some of us for weeks or even months together slept uniformly through the noisy ringing of the first bell, but were waked at once by the gentle strokes of the second, sprang out of bed, threw on our clothes, caught up books, and though we might have to cross the common, were in our chapel seats before the six minutes had expired.  Those who roomed near [chapel] could spend even part of the six minutes in bed.”*

While it seems that most ringers were generally responsible, some bellmen were more dubious than others, ringing the bell earlier than necessary.  Since no one was allowed to enter the chapel after the bellman, he would often raise the bell to its highest height and dash down to the chapel before the tolling ended so that some unfortunate students who had slept in would be denied admittance.  Perhaps it was this early-bird bell ringer who instigated several students to steal the tongue of bell so that it couldn’t be rung in the morning.  Some students even rang the bell in the middle of the night as a practical joke.

“At a later day the more merciful rule prevailed that the first bell in the morning (fifteen or twenty minutes before the tolling) should never be rung earlier than five o’clock…”*

The hijinks continue into the 21st century as the bells have moved from Dartmouth Hall, to Rollins Chapel, and finally to Baker Tower.  They are now controlled remotely via computer by a graduate student in the Digital Musics Program.  The job continues to be passed from student to student on a volunteer basis.  Since the bells can be accessed from anywhere via wifi, the student in charge of the system can change the programmed tune at a moment’s notice.  Perhaps the most notable instance was last year when the appointed student switched the tune to the theme from the HBO series Game of Thrones as he was driven by friends to a watch party of the show.

After the construction has been completed for Homecoming 2016, the Music Department will retain responsibility for the bells and the song request system will resume.  To make a request, simply email Bells@Dartmouth.edu.  The bells can be programmed to play anything from a midi file, even an original composition.  Unfortunately, the range is only about an octave and a half, so some restrictions apply.

As far as we know, only one official recording of the Baker bells prior to the construction exists.  It was recently converted from a phonotape to a digital format and can be heard upon request from the Rauner Special Collections Library.  However, the sound quality is quite murky and with no track list, the recording is difficult to navigate.  We at Paddock would like to lay down a challenge for current music students.  When the bells ring again during Homecoming 2016, wouldn’t it be lovely for a current Dartmouth student to produce a high quality, digital recording of our beloved bells for the archives?  Just be sure to send us a copy!

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Photos of the original installation of the Baker bells serve as a scrim to hid the construction in front of Baker Library.
Historical information for this post was taken from A history of Dartmouth college and the town of Hanover, New Hampshire by Frederick Chase, 1891. Information regarding the Music Department’s responsibilities regarding the bells was gathered through talks with current Music faculty and graduate students.

The library extends a special thank you to Steve Swayne, Michael Casey, Jeffrey Mentch, Caitlin Birch, and the Facilities Operations Management Department for their help in tracking down information about the Baker bells.  Those interested in further information about the bells can find it at the links below:

Dartmouth News: Historic Baker Bell Tower to Undergo Repairs

The Dartmouth: For Whom the Baker Bells Toll

Dartmouth Digital Musics: About the Baker Bells

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