Here in New England: Where the Bells Ring On
If the Bevin Bros. Manufacturing Company had gone out of business, we would have written you a pretty story, something wistful and touching about the latest industry to disappear from New England. It would have been sad and nostalgic, but–like any other eulogy–we would have made it pretty. This is not that story.
In East Hampton, Connecticut, one factory refuses to die. The old mill building stands dark and brooding. Its floorboards creak underfoot, and its red-brick walls have dulled with age. The old millstream flows quietly under the factory, while the flywheels it once powered hang still from the rafters. On a foggy morning, you’d swear the place was abandoned, but then someone flips on the lights and powers up the presses. The building breathes. As people get to work, it grows unnervingly loud in some places, unbearably hot in others. It is, quite simply, not pretty. But work rarely is.
The fate of Bevin Bros. came down to a single decision in 2008. The company had reached its 176th anniversary, but domestic taxes and cheap foreign labor were pushing it to the brink. Stanley R. Bevin, the fifth generation of Bevins to run the company in an unbroken line dating back to its founding, had had enough. He asked his nephew Matt whether he wanted to have a go at being the sixth.
“I don’t know why I took this on,” Matt says jokingly. The factory is just one more responsibility on his already-full plate. Only 43 years old, Matt is the president, chief investor, or a board member of 10 companies scattered around the country. If you ask him to name them all, he has to stop and think about it. His primary business is an investment-management firm in Kentucky that handles $2.7 billion of other people’s money. So, yes, Matt understands exactly how bad an investment a bell company is.
“If you were to start a manufacturing business, you probably wouldn’t start it in America. If you did, you certainly wouldn’t start it in Connecticut,” he explains. “The smart thing to do, at the minimum, would be to move it out of state. But then you’d be taking the bells out of Belltown.”
In the 19th century, if you were to come across a manufactured bell anywhere in the world, there was a good chance that it came from East Hampton (then called Chatham). For more than 100 years, bells sustained this city, home to 30 different manufacturers at one time or another. Founded in 1832, Bevin was one of the earliest and most successful.
But as the 20th century progressed, the bell industry succumbed to the same reality that’s been the scourge of other American manufacturers: It’s just plain cheaper to make simple products elsewhere. The other bell factories in town folded, one by one, until by the 1970s only Bevin Bros. remained.
Today, the factory employs just 20 people, and East Hampton has long since made the transition to post-industrial “bedroom community.” If Bevin Bros. were to go under, the town wouldn’t change much. Still, it’s important to Matt that the story here doesn’t play out the same way it has everywhere else. He didn’t come to East Hampton just to make bells; he came to make a statement.
“To me, this is a testament to perseverance,” he says. “This is a testament to proving that you can still manufacture and exist in America.”
Matt Bevin grew up to the sound of bells; he spent childhood vacations visiting his grandmother in East Hampton. Her parlor was like a showroom: Sleigh bells hung from the walls on worn leather straps, and handbells of all kinds were neatly arranged on shelves and tables. From his grandmother’s home, Matt would make the short trip down the hill to the factory, and, when he wasn’t busy sliding down the delivery chute, he’d help install tongues in the bells. The passion stuck with him, and he’s become a collector and connoisseur in his own right. He even claims to be able to spot a Chinese-made call bell from 10 paces: “It’s never quite straight.”