A bell is a bell is a bell or so it would seem. But no, bells have a deep history going back as far as 2000 B.C. In ancient China as metallurgy began to take on a life of its own as the first bells worked their way into culture, religion and the lifestyles of the rich and powerful. Before Christianity, bells were popular in India and across to Japan as a method to carry the will of the Gods, provide peace, clear minds and help chase away evil spirits. Moses, who studied in Egypt, brought the bell tradition to his people.
A bell is described as a hollow vessel that when struck makes a loud ringing sound. The bell clapper is made of the same material as the bell itself and if created correctly can hit the bell with a speed of 1000 kilowatts per hour and can continue for 1000years. Bells ring best if bare metal upon bare metal is performed, thus paint, polish or using any kind of preservative can affect the bell’s ring tone.
Over centuries bells created their own uses and are associated strongly with most church services and marriages, celebrations, public meetings, and schools. Fire departments used bells to summon volunteers when needed and many fire trucks today have a symbolicbell mounted somewhere prominently. Ships also have used bells as far back as the 1500’s. Carillons are 25 separate bells specially tuned to announce time changes and play music. Treasure Island and St. Pete Beach have these bells which are heard chiming daily across the islands.
Christmas time with its sparkle and glitter has bells entwined in decorations, adorning trees, ringing for calls to worship and to bring in the New Year. Bells come in all sizes and their uses have created many traditions both old and new.
These historical facts pave a path direct to the “Sunset Bell” in Pass-a-Grille on St. Pete Beach. In 1997 local resident Cleo Robertson found an old USA #3 school bell in an antique shop, bought it and donated it to the Gulf Beaches HistoricalMuseum. The Museum in turn received City permission and their help with the installation of the bell on the Gulfside of the city concession building at Gulf Way and 10th Avenue. (It is now called Paradise Grille)
On March 27, 1997 resident Jay King rang the bell for the first time. Jay, Joe Conslanesila, Cleo, and Jim Myers formed The Clapper Club, and as sunset approached would line up watchers and invite them to ring the bell as the sun dipped into the Gulf waters. Thus a new island tradition was born and continues nightly as sunset watchers gather to enjoy the tradition of ringing the bell.
Over the past decades, thousands of people have signed the bell’s guest books and inside their pages is a wonderful peek at human nature at its best. There have been weddings at the bell, birthdays, and family celebrations by the hundreds, funeral toasts, anniversaries, graduations, but mostly just visitors young and old from locals to many from all over the world enjoying the glorious sunsets enhanced by bell ringing.
The guest books have photos taped on pages, and obituaries pasted in surrounded by words written by family and friends. All of the United States is represented along with too many foreign countries to mention in this story. The common thread as shown throughout the pages is the deep felt appreation of the peacefulness of the area, the water, the friendly atmosphere, what ringing the bell means to them and of course the sunset itself.
The bell is mounted on a thick post attached to the seawall which makes it wide open for exposure to the harsh sun, rain, and wind that roll in with salt air from the Gulf of Mexico. The current bell is the third bell to be installed due to the weather conditions. Each bell ringer must ring fifteen times for the following reasons:
1) 5 rings to remind the sea gulls to return to Shell Island.
2) 5 rings to honor guest ringers.
3) 5 rings to honor the Clapper Club tradition.
The bell clapper has a special lanyard made by a Purple Heart recipient and wheelchair bound Snake Baker. The lanyard has been in use on the bell clapper for over ten years. The clapper and guest book are secured after the nightly ringing. This is done to ensure their safety and “to eliminate the temptation at 2 am from a reveler walking by,” says Jim Myers. Jim is a long time local resident and has been the “keeper” of the bell for most of its time. He, or one of his volunteers, is on deck most evenings to let as many visitors as possible get a chance to be a bell ringer. Jim is adamant about keeping the bell tradition alive. His business card lists his name as Capt. Jim Myers, H.D.D. (Head Ding Dong) and invites anyone to enjoy “a decade Old Tradition in which you can share! Just Show Up & Sign our Guest Book.”
The study of bells is defined as “Campanology” and a “Campanologist” is the bell ringer. And Jim Myers certainly fits that category well. Jim tells us, “I need some help and anyone who loves the sunsets and would like to be a part of the tradition, are welcome. Give me a call and come on down!”
One evening Jim recognized Rick Baker and invited him to ring the bell on his inauguration day as Mayor of St. Petersburg. He did, saw the Green Flash and wrote about in his book, “Seamless City.” At the end of his second term, he sent a TV crew out to tape the bell tradition and it was shown at his last meeting. One of Jim’s current volunteers, Jim LeBlanc, has created a Facebook page called “Ding Dong Sunset at Pass-a-Grille.” It has photos of bell ringers and has become a popular touch to the bell tradition. The community, the Museum, and its visitors are appreciative to Jim for his time and effort toward the “Sunset Bell.”
Quoting from some book entries:
Jan/1999 – a couple from Manhatten, IL. “traveled all over the world – this is in the top 10 –a real find.” July, 1999 – a family of five from St. Charles, MO. “couldn’t go home without seeing a sunset – the clouds stayed away & it was beautiful – God’s most beautiful creation.” 3/2002 – party of 3 from French Camp, MS. “beautiful place – wonderful people – we rang the bell!” 4/2004 from Burlington, ON, Canada says the Hale family “the bell ringing with sunset ends a great day.” 9/30/07 – beach resident “never get tired of ringing the bell, wonderful!”
The Sunset Bell guest books are on display at the Museum. They hold some interesting reading and are available to be read and enjoyed. Everyone is welcome to go down, enjoy the sunset, watch for the Green Flash, pull the lanyard to ring the bell fifteen times and sign the guest book. It is a peaceful experience and the setting sun puts a unique touch to a very centuries old and enjoyable tradition.