With all the technology that exists today we can easily lose what was the primary means of alerting the masses that it was noon time, a fire had erupted somewhere in town, or there was imminent danger. The messenger is universal and it transcends centuries. This basic form of communication was the bell.
Every town has a bell, whether it is in Town Hall, the Fire Station, or in one of the churches. People knew by the sound of the bell where it was located. And the purpose of its message. The Westminster Chimes we hear at noon comes from the Central Fire Station, and the bells in the churches ring for religious events and funerals.
The bell in downtown Ashland is probably the most obvious one. It is located between the Fire and Police Stations. This isn’t the one you will hear at noon today, but it was in service from 1878 until the Central Fire Station was remodeled and the bell replaced by a more modern system.
What’s the history behind this bell? It was purchased out of necessity. If there was a fire in Ashland, the only way fire fighters could be notified was limited to the bells in the churches. And someone had to open the church to ring them wasting valuable response time. Local factories were also used to blow steam whistles, but again someone had to notify them.
From previous visits we know that Ashland had an Engine House in the area that is today Murphy Square. It contained a tower that would be perfect for a bell, and in 1878, the town appropriated $100.00 to purchase a bell. The cost for the purchase and installation totaled $111.07 (over budget again, I guess), but fortunately the firemen themselves ponied up the cash to balance the debt.
The bell served the town well at this location until it was moved to the tower in the new Central Fire Station built in 1929. Although Ashland eventually went to horns to sound the alarm, the bell still existed when the station was remodeled in the ’80s. It was decided then that the bell that called our firefighters together for all those years would be a fitting memorial to all those who served or died in the line of duty. Most recently, the 50 year memorial for fallen Fire Fighters Chief Charles Moran, Norman Barry, and John Reebenaker found the townsfolk gathered around the bell. The bell itself has the inscription “Holbrook. E Medway Mass. 1878.” What is more important is the granite plaque in front of it. It reads:
WHEN I AM CALLED TO DUTY, GOD, WHENEVER FLAMES MAY RAGE: GIVE ME STRENGTH TO SAVE SOME LIFE, WHATEVER BE ITS AGE. HELP ME EMBRACE A SMALL CHILD BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE, OR SAVE AN OLDER PERSON FROM THE HORROR OF THAT FATE. ENABLE ME TO HEAR THE WEAKEST SHOUT, AND QUICKLY AND EFFECIENTLY PUT THE FIRE OUT. I WANT TO FILL MY CALLING AND GIVE THE BEST IN ME TO GUARD EVERY NEIGHBOR AND PROTECT HIS PROPERTY. AND, IF ACCORDING TO MY FATE, I AM TO LOSE MY LIFE, PLEASE BLESS WITH YOUR PROTECTING HAND, MY CHILDREN AND MY WIFE.
DEDICATED JUNE 14, 1987
ASHLAND FIRE DEPT.
These words by James J. Metcalfe are certainly appropriate. Too often we take the jobs they have for granted, and it takes a tragedy to bring to light the real danger they face every day.
Many thanks to Kay Powers and former Firefighter Larry Bennett for information used for today’s article.
Steve Leacu for Ashland Directions