Bells Toll 175 Years

The Verdin Co. and all family businesses are the backbone of our manufacturing economy and emblematic of perseverance, innovation and talent. 

Here at PM, we get invitations to attend various “newsworthy” events. One such invitation came across my email recently and caught my attention.

My metalworking career started in a gray iron foundry that cast machine tool beds, bases and sundry other parts, hundreds of them. This invitation was to attend a celebration for a unique foundry and business. I guess I still have sand in my blood.

As many of you are members of family-owned businesses, I thought this celebratory event might be of interest. Jumping into the “Way-Back Machine,” we arrive in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1842.

That year, two French immigrant brothers, Michael and Francois de Salle Verdin, installed their first product, a tower clock and bells, at a church in downtown Cincy. It was the first of more than 50,000 such installations that this company has placed around the world.

I bring this up because the newsworthy event referred to is a celebration of the Verdin Co.’s 175th anniversary. It’s also a celebration of survival and success for a six-generation family business. The family has run the business, uninterrupted, since its founding, which is no small achievement, as it is the oldest family-owned business in Ohio.

Casting bronze bells, carillons and building clocks and towers represent the company’s main business for its long history. Along the way, it has introduced innovations to its industry. Casting bells may seem like settled technology, but like most technology, there are always improvements to be made and Verdin has had its share through the years.

A few examples of innovation are listed on the company’s website. They include invention of the first electric bell ringer in America (prior to 1927, all bells were rung by hand), installation of the largest swinging bell in America (2000), and the beginning of becoming the only mobile bell foundry in the world (2001).

Through much of history, bells were a relatively utilitarian device. Bells were cast to serve a communication purpose, a sort of middle-age internet.

Back in the days before watches and iPhones, bells were used to keep time. They were also a source of news for a town alerting the residents of potential danger from fires and other sources. And, as we still do today, tolling of bells has always been a cause for celebration. Their appeal (pun intended) is universal.

Everybody has heard of London’s Big Ben. Well, thanks to Verdin Co., Cincinnati has an equivalent, albeit less famous, version of the Brit’s icon. Ours is called Big Joe.

For more than 120 years, Big Joe has called the faithful to services at St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church. It was cast in 1895 requiring a pour time of 41 minutes. It weighs 35,000 pounds, and the clapper alone is a hefty 640 pounds.

Big Joe was intended to be equal in size and a replication of Big Ben. The only difference between the two bells is that Big Ben was never intended to swing. It rings by being struck, which is a volume adjustable method. As a swinging bell with a clapper, volume for Big Joe was all or nothing.

According to legend, Big Joe was first rung in early January, 1896. It turns out the Brits made the better choice making Big Ben stationary.

Legend has it that when Big Joe’s clapper clapped, its peal could be heard within a 15-mile radius. This was significantly outside the parish boundaries of St. Francis de Sales. Moreover, it rattled nearby buildings, shattering windows in the neighborhood. Alvin Harlow, a Cincinnati historian, said it this way: “It was installed, it swung, and all of the surrounding area almost jumped out of its collective skin.”

It was decided that Big Joe never swing again. The bell was immobilized, and a Verdin foot hammer was installed to strike the edge of the bell in a more controlled fashion. It continues to ring today only much quieter. Learning by mistakes and fixing them is a key to longevity for any business.

 So please join me in congratulating Verdin on its 175 years of success as a manufacturing contributor and family business. In addition, congratulations to all the family businesses throughout the country. You are truly the backbone of our manufacturing economy and emblematic of the perseverance, innovation, flexibility and talent that has been the hallmark of U.S. industry since its beginning.