This Week in History, A Thanksgiving Day story: Block Island’s oldest bell is dedicated
This week in history 105 years ago, on Thanksgiving Day 1907, the oldest bell that is still on Block Island was raised to the belfry of the newly built Methodist Church on Center Road. The building was still under construction, with the furnace and acetylene gas lights installed at the end of December, and the church fully completed in 1908.
Large bells have not been a prominent part of the island’s history, but amongst others were:
(1) A bell at the end of the Old Harbor dock during the late-1870s, used to alert tourists to the imminent departure back to the mainland of the sidewheel steamer Mount Hope;
(2) A bell next to the entrance of the Old Harbor Baptist Church, placed there in the 1960s, then removed in the 1970s; and
(3) The bell from the second aircraft carrier USS Block Island, located in storage on the mainland in 1969 through the efforts of Merrill Slate and Maizie Rose, and installed at Legion Park in New Harbor in 1971.
(4) A bell at the West Side Baptist Church, which was built in 1919, and converted into a private rental house in 2004. Note that this is the fourth Baptist church to be built at this site. When the third church building burned to the ground in 1918, the present one was erected. Conceivably the bell installed in the belfry could be older, and could have been salvaged from one of the earlier churches built on the same spot — or even from a church from the mainland. But so too could the bell now displayed on the lawn of the old Methodist Church have originated from a much older church on the mainland.
Construction of the Methodist Church began on October 23, 1907, just a month before the bell was placed in the belfry, and just a year after the Methodist movement took root on the island.
During the early part of the 1900s, the congregation on Block Island became affiliated with a 100-year old evangelical version of the Methodists, one popular in rural areas on the mainland, where large throngs often attended “Camp” style meetings.
In 1922 the island’s female pastor of the Methodist Church set a first in the United States, as reported in May:
“As has been stated throughout the country in nearly all of the important newspapers, Mrs. Haire enjoys the distinction of being the first woman in the United States to be ordained a minister in the denomination.
“On Block Island, a large congregation is expected to attend the welcome services at the Center Church on Sunday evening.”
In 1923 a colorful memorial window, one of several in the church made of stained glass, was dedicated in memory of Milton Mitchell, one of three Block Islanders killed in Europe during World War One. The window was unveiled by Milton’s brothers, Ernest and Adrian Mitchell.
As the island’s population declined during the 1940s and 50s, so to did attendance at the Methodist Church. In the late-1970s, the building was sold to private owners, who plucked off the deteriorating steeple, but saved the rest of the building — including the stained glass windows — by converting the structure to an antique store and bed and breakfast.
And when you pass along Center Road, you can see the large bell from the old belfry better than ever; well preserved and nicely displayed, sitting on the lawn by the front door, and thank you for that — a present from Thanksgiving Day 1907, and the oldest bell on Block Island now.