It was midnight on Mayflower Hill. The buses rolled in from upstate New York, and the football team spilled out. Whooping and hollering, the team gathered around the bell mounted near Seaverns Field.
They’d returned home victorious over the Hamilton Continentals, and tradition called: the ringing of the Revere Bell.
“We’d all stand around and take turns ringing the bell,” recalled Billy Parker ’16. “We’d ring it only after a win,” said the defensive end from Methuen, Mass. “It was the highlight of winning a game,” and it couldn’t wait until morning.
However, the bell that Parker and his teammates rang wasn’t Colby’s storied Revere Bell. It was a replica, cast and mounted after the original bell was broken and silenced several years earlier.
But thanks to President David A. Greene’s initiative, Parker, now Colby’s assistant secretary of the College, played a key role in resurrecting the historic bell. When the College celebrated the arrival of the Class of 2025 at its 204th Convocation, the bell was there, repaired and at the ready.
“Today, we begin a new tradition for this venerable bell, marking yet another moment in Colby’s history when we can celebrate the achievements of hard work and sacrifice,” said College Historian Earl Smith.
With that, students stepped forward (two from each of the current classes) and pulled the clapper. The deep, pure sound of Colby’s Revere Bell rang out once again.
Cast in 1824 at Boston’s Paul Revere & Sons Foundry, the 700-pound Revere Bell came to Colby, then called Waterville College, that same year. The earliest image of the downtown campus, a daguerreotype from 1856, shows the bell hanging from the tower on Recitation Hall, the campus’s main classroom building.
However, when the weight of the tower was found to endanger the building’s walls, the bell was moved to a cupola atop South College Hall, the dormitory next door. It hung there until the middle of the 20th century.
“The Colby bell is significant and rare,” Smith said. “Paul Revere opened his bell foundry in Boston’s North End in 1792, and by 1828 he had cast a total of 398 bells. Because of fires that over time razed the wooden buildings that housed them, it is believed that fewer than 60 of these bells still exist.”
Colby’s Revere Bell marked events historic, celebratory, and ordinary. Rung to greet students returning from the Civil War, it also signaled victories in both world wars. And it tolled in 1864 when a gift from Gardner Colby saved the College from financial ruin.
The bell also served as the College’s timekeeper, chiming at the beginning and end of recitations and rousing students in the wee hours, summoning them to chapel. Nineteenth-century students found the bell a nuisance, going to great lengths to silence the clanging beast.
Students repeatedly removed and hid the clapper, once embedding it in the masonry of a building undergoing renovations, Smith reported. Another time, students transported the entire bell to Brunswick by horse sleigh and “swapped it with the bell at Bowdoin, each one then installed in place of the other.”
Smith recounts another story, from 1880, when students smuggled the bell off campus and sent it to Harvard University sophomores, who shipped it to the University of Virginia. Detectives hired to locate the bell discovered it “in a crate on the deck of a sailing packet in New York Harbor, bound for London and addressed to ‘Her Gracious Majesty, Victoria, Queen, Defender, etc., Windsor Castle, England, C.O.D.’”
The Revere Bell survived, adorning the downtown campus for 126 years until 1951, when a furniture company rented South College Hall. “The bell was taken from the belfry and put into the basement of Hedman Hall,” Smith wrote, “where it ignominiously collected dust for a year.”
By this time, the Mayflower Hill campus had taken shape. The story of the Revere Bell would soon continue in a new location.
A Home on the Hill
Initial plans were to hang the Revere Bell in Miller Library’s tower. When a clock was chosen instead, the bell found a home on the second-floor portico of Roberts Union. In 1952 it was installed on the north side of the building. For the next 30 years, the bell rang out infrequently, and only then on special occasions.
It was 1986 when the football team started ringing the Revere Bell following victories. They’d trudge up to the portico and exuberantly ring the bell—until the fateful day when a fist-sized chunk broke off in a high-spirited celebration following a win over Bates College. Reportedly, someone used a hammer on the outside of the bell. With one stroke, the tradition came to an abrupt ending.
The damaged bell was shipped to Ohio, where a company specializing in Revere Bell repairs fixed the bell. At the same time, they cast a bronze replica. In 2011 the College mounted the replica on the courtyard near Seaverns Field, thanks to a gift by former Mules Jonathan Barry ’98 and Anthony Pasquariello ’99. After a brief hiatus, the bell-ringing tradition resumed and continues to this day.
The original Revere Bell, however, remained crated for the next 10 years. Intermittent discussions over where to hang the repaired bell proved unfruitful. The bell, considered a historic artifact, needed protecting, said Douglas Terp ’84, vice president for administration and chief financial officer. So the bell remained in storage, tucked out of sight.
Peals on Wheels
The story of the Revere Bell could have had an unremarkable ending. But when Smith brought the bell to President Greene’s attention earlier this year, a quick chain of events thrust the bell back into the limelight.
Let’s find that bell, President Greene said to Parker.
Two phone calls later, Parker had located the bell in the Washington Street storage building. They crowbarred off the lid, and there it was. “It was pretty cool to be the first person to see the bell after so long,” Parker said. “We reached in and felt around the rim—it was all repaired.”
Now mounted on a portable steel truss, the bell will stay in storage most of the time. But twice each year, at convocation and baccalaureate, it will be wheeled out and rung to announce the opening and closing of each academic year.
On Sept. 7, 2021, the Revere Bell enjoyed its third debut, this time at convocation, ringing in a new Colby tradition.
“As the Revere Bell rings today, I hope you hear in its echoes those who came long before us, at this College and in our own lives, to make it possible for us to be here today,” said President Greene. “We benefit every day from their sacrifices, hard work, and generosity.”
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