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After almost 4 decades in the basement, 123-year-old bell back on display at Wrightsville fire house


These days it's a page alerting emergency responders to a fire and a smartphone app or a phone call to the station to make it clear who's responding to the incident.

But back before computers, phones, pagers and the 911 system, which went active July 25, 1970, everything was just a bit more ad hoc. In Wrightsville, starting in the 1880s with the formation of the fire department, officials passed a phone list around to everyone in town, numbers anyone could call in case of an emergency.

Those numbers didn't connect you to anything very official — you were calling the guy who lived across the street from the fire station, or, if he didn't pick up, the one who lived behind it, and so on. When those people received the report of a fire, they would run to the firehouse and ring the 650-pound bronze bell, its clangs echoing around town, calling the volunteer firefighters to the station.

"When you really got desperate, you ran down and rang the alarm yourself," remembered 70-year-old Ed Keller, who joined the department in 1963.

Our emergency response system has evolved, and, by all accounts, become a bit more organized. But the bell got the job done as the sole alerting device around town from its commission in 1892 until the 1940s, when sirens at the fire department out-louded it and encroached on its position of importance. It ultimately ended up in the firehouse's basement after the old station was knocked down in 1979.

But now the bell's back, its bronze glimmer restored to its former glory as it hangs from the new sign outside the Wrightsville fire station.

Chief Chad Livelsberger of the Wrightsville Fire & Rescue Co. said that's in large part thanks to a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant designed to help the all-volunteer fire company have a higher profile. They used it to put up a nice new sign outside, featuring an LED display; they decided the bell, which had acquired "an ugly, greenish tint to it" from 30-plus years in the basement, would be a good addition.

"We did this for the people who ran here years ago," Livelsberger said, using the still-prevalent firefighter slang that recalled the pre-car days when firefighters literally ran to each fire alongside their towed fire trucks.

So he chucked the 30-inch-high, 30-inch-wide bell into the back of his pickup truck and brought it down to Baltimore's McShane Bell Foundry, which still exists after making the bell all those years ago. For just under $2,000, they fixed it up over the course of a month and a half, and it's been back proudly hanging out front of the 125 S. Second St. station for a few weeks now.

Which means it was there for Sept. 11. For the first time in almost four decades, the 123-year-old bell rang out over the borough of Wrightsville, its "church-like" tones echoing around the area as firefighters rang it and sounded the siren six times that day, marking the times when 14 years ago the two towers were struck, when they fell, when a plane crashed into the Pentagon, and when the fourth plane went down in Shanksville, Somerset County.

Dump fires: After the firehouse sirens were put in, they overtook the bell as the primary way of calling firefighters to the station. But the bell couldn't be muscled completely out — it became the way of calling for a fire at one of the old dumps that then were around town. Keller said he wasn't quite sure why that was the case, and neither is 84-year-old former firefighter Albert Weisser — but he has a guess.

These days, pages immediately tell firefighters the location of a fire and often give a clue to the severity. But that's relatively new — in 1960, for example, firefighters hearing the alarm had no idea whether they were responding to some burning shrubbery or a three-alarm factory fire. Weisser, who joined the department around 1950, said no one ever explicitly laid the explanation out, but he was of the opinion that they used the bell to signify a dump fire because those fires really weren't that big a deal.

"We could wait 10 minutes and everything would be OK," he said. They were "more a nuisance than anything."

Both aging firefighters — who said they were very happy to see the bell back on display — said dump fires were actually relatively frequent — probably more often than any other kind of fire.

"Of course, if we had 20 calls a year, that was a lot of calls" back then, Keller said. That's very different now, with diminished numbers of volunteers at each station often requiring that several different departments respond to even basic fire calls.

And that's one of the reasons for the FEMA grant — having a cool, eye-catching sign outside the station is, in theory, a good recruiting tool for the station that's down to about 30 to 35 members, Livelsberger said.

"It gives the sign and the outside of the firehouse some appeal," he said.

— Reach Sean Cotter at scotter@yorkdispatch.com.