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Town rings in new life for old Bow Bog Meeting House

  • Steve Fifield looks out as the Mary Baker Eddy bell is lifted into the steeple of the Bow Bog Meeting House on Tuesday, October 1, 2013. Fifield owns the company that helped restore the 178-year old meeting house along with the Bow Heritage Commission and a grant from the Land and Community Investment Heritage Program. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Steve Fifield looks out as the Mary Baker Eddy bell is lifted into the steeple of the Bow Bog Meeting House on Tuesday, October 1, 2013. Fifield owns the company that helped restore the 178-year old meeting house along with the Bow Heritage Commission and a grant from the Land and Community Investment Heritage Program.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Bow town employees help unload the bell from a truck outside the Bow Bog Meeting House on Tuesday, October 1, 2013.  <br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Bow town employees help unload the bell from a truck outside the Bow Bog Meeting House on Tuesday, October 1, 2013.
    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Steve Fifield looks out as the Mary Baker Eddy bell is lifted into the steeple of the Bow Bog Meeting House on Tuesday, October 1, 2013. Fifield owns the company that helped restore the 178-year old meeting house along with the Bow Heritage Commission and a grant from the Land and Community Investment Heritage Program. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Bow town employees help unload the bell from a truck outside the Bow Bog Meeting House on Tuesday, October 1, 2013.  <br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

Faye Johnson can remember her grandmother, Eva Alexander, telling stories about the old Bow Bog Meeting House, where, years before, she had attended church services and eaten baked bean dinners with her family.

Alexander was “a practical lady” of few words, Johnson said, and she would have been smiling yesterday morning as a crane lifted the meeting house’s newly refurbished, 110-year-old bell to its tower.

Johnson, a member of the Bow Heritage Commission, gathered with other commission members and town officials on the grass outside the meeting house to watch the bell return home. The bell’s restoration was just one piece of a nearly $200,000 project over the past several years to renovate the Bow Bog Meeting House, built in 1835.

“(My grandmother) would look at that and say, ‘Isn’t that handsome,’ ” Johnson said, looking up at the gleaming bell and the white belfry.

There’s still work to be done – Johnson is waiting for a response to her application for a grant financed through the state’s moose license plate program to fix more of the windows and shutters. Old altar chairs need to reupholstered, and the original organ will be restored. But yesterday, the bell’s installation was a moment of ringing success for the commission.

“It’s nice to see it through,” Johnson said.

Johnson, who was beaming yesterday morning, has been the driving force behind the renovations to the meeting house. Her signature slopes in neat cursive on the application that earned the meeting house a spot on the state register of historic places in January 2011, and last week she carried a bag of paperwork for the many grant applications she has filled out to fund the project. A Land and Community Investment Heritage Program grant contributed $50,000, a sum the town then matched, to the renovation. Smaller grants and donations from residents have financed repairs to some of the building’s windows and shutters. As she researched the grants, Johnson dug through town records and old photographs to compile information about a building that has been a part of town life for more than 178 years.

“You had to go back into the Bow history books,” she said.

George Washington Wheeler built the original meeting house in 1835 for just $800, and Mary Baker Eddy donated money to purchase the bell – which cost only $100 – in 1903. For years, the meeting house served as a home for Methodist and

Episcopal congregations in the Bow area. In 1951, the Bow Bog Meeting House Society formed to protect and preserve the meeting house. Some people in town had proposed turning the aging building into a barn to house livestock, Johnson said.

She gestured to the rows of newly painted blue-gray pews and the large windows letting light flood into the open room.

“Can you imagine that?” she asked, shaking her head. “If this was used as a barn.”

Johnson, now 71, was 9 years old when the meeting house society took over the building. She did not regularly attend services there, but she said she remembers the picturesque building from her childhood, the evening light filtering through its windows, the sound of church hymns rising above the sturdy wooden pews.

Since then, the bell has been rung on a handful of occasions when the building opens for social gatherings, including the town’s 250th anniversary, though the meeting house society dissolved and turned the building over to the town’s care in 1985. Now, Johnson’s memories – and her grandmother’s memories – have prompted her to make sure that bell will ring for many years to come.

“When you’ve always been in one place and your ancestors (were here), you want to be a part of it,” she said.

Yesterday, Sue Wheeler, a descendent of George Washington Wheeler and a member of the heritage commission, also stood outside the meeting house her ancestor built. She watched as the bell, once covered with dust and old graffiti, rose to the belfry once again.

“I’m awestruck,” Wheeler, 54, said. “It’s a skin-pinching moment. I would never have thought I would be a part of it (more than) 150 years later.”

Before being restored by the craftsmen at Limerick Steeplejacks in Maine, the bell hadn’t left the tower in more than 100 years, heritage commission Chairman Gary Nylen said, his eyes following its ascent with a history buff’s excitement.

“You have to love history to preserve it,” Nylen said.

The heritage commission plans to host an open house in November to celebrate the renovated space, but Johnson said she hopes to see the town and local schools use the building for events as well.

“We’d really like to get it going more,” Johnson said. “It’s not just meant to sit here.”

(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or mdoyle@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)

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