Connecticut sleigh-bell maker still ringing up sales

The factory is old and dark, with massive stamping machines and rows of sorting shelves that look as though they belong in the Smithsonian. But this time of year, there's no lack of cheer at Bevin Bros. Manufacturing Co.

Bevin Bros., one of the oldest continuously operated factories in Connecticut, is the last remnant of a once-thriving industry that earned East Hampton the nickname "Bell Town, USA," an improbable holdout in a business that has moved to the low-wage producers of Asia.

But the sixth-generation operator of a family business that dates back to 1832 believes sleigh bells — and the iconic appeal they evoke at Christmas — can keep the enterprise alive well into the 21st century.

"We are the last manufacturer of bells left in North America, all that remains of an industry in East Hampton that once produced 90% of the world's sleigh bells," says Matt Bevin, who took over Bevin Bros. in 2008 and has since struggled to revive the moribund family firm. "In an electronic age, when much of the sound of bells can be replicated on your iPhone, how do you capitalize on the real thing? That's the challenge we're testing here now."

It turns out there is more life left in the simple brass or steel bell than most people would think. One of Bevin's largest customers is Poochie Pets, a Simsbury, Conn., company that attaches Bevin sleigh bells to a nylon strap that can be hung on door handles so that pet dogs can ring them when they need to be let out. Other companies attach the bells to traditional leather straps for decorative door hangings at Christmas.

All told, the company markets more than 700,000 sleigh bells a year, in addition to cow bells sold for spectators at football games and ski races, teacher's bells, tea bells and patio and yacht bells.

Cheryl Pedersen, who started Poochie Pets in 2005, originally imported all of her bells from China to take advantage of low costs. But after sales at her company took off two years ago, Bevin approached her about supplying bells from Connecticut, and she was impressed by the company's pricing and quality. She now orders about 500,000 Bevin sleigh bells a year.

"Bevin is now stamping our dog-paw logo on the bells, and reinforces them so that they don't get squished when they are caught in the door," Pedersen says. "You wouldn't get that kind of service from a supplier in China, and we like the fact that it's all made right here in Connecticut. Matt is a role model for a lot of small companies like us because we're all trying to show that this kind of thing can still survive in America and be innovative, and that's what he's doing."

Bevin Bros. is also the sole supplier for another Christmastime staple — the hand bells that Salvation Army workers ring outside stores. The company recently supplied new bells for Macy's when the department store chain was refurbishing the red suits for all its Santas.

Bevin, 43, an entrepreneur who also operates a large asset management firm and other companies in Kentucky, remembers running down the factory floors as a boy. He took over the bell company after other family members concluded he was the only member of his generation with both the business know-how and capital to save the firm, and he has spent the last two years reorganizing the shop floor, rebuilding relationships with customers and creating strategies for winning back business that the company has lost to China and other Asian manufacturers over the last 20 years.

Shortly after he took over, Bevin called all of his employees together and told them, "We make a product that people really don't need any more but still seem to want. How can we take advantage of that and grow in smart ways?"

Smart growth includes such concepts as pooch bells or line alerts for ice fishermen, but Bevin suspects that reviving the company will have more to do with the embedded appeal that bells have.

"It's nostalgia," Bevin says. "Bells make attractive sounds that bring back so many important moments in a life — weddings, the dinner bell, Christmas. They conjure up images that were important in people's lives."

That nostalgia runs deep in the New England experience, even if few people recall exactly how sleigh bells came to symbolize winter and the Christmas season. In the 19th century, when roads were narrow and curved, sleigh runners gliding over the snow were almost completely silent. Harness bells were introduced to warn pedestrians and others on the road about the approach of another sleigh, and were considered so important that many states passed laws requiring their use.

Sleigh bells became permanently associated with Christmas after James Lord Pierpont wrote the song "One Horse Open Sleigh," later called "Jingle Bells," in 1857, and it became an immediate hit. Pierpont was inspired by watching sleigh races in Medford, Mass.

The Bevin brothers took advantage of the huge demand for bells after one of them, William, learned bell-making as an indentured servant. In 1832, William was joined by his three brothers — Abner, Chauncey and Philo — in the business, and the company eventually became the largest bell maker in a town that eventually would spawn 30 other bell manufacturers when the industrial revolution took off in Connecticut.

In addition to 20 different sizes of sleigh bells, Bevin Bros. made cow, sheep, door and ship's bells, and later pioneered such innovations as the first bicycle and car bells, and the bells on the first Good Humor ice cream trucks, which are now popular fixtures on ice cream and juice carts in Latin America.

The bell factories in East Hampton created a bustling, festive atmosphere, with dozens of horse-drawn wagons jingling down to the freight tracks every day as the town's bells made the first leg of their marketing journey around the globe.

But that situation has changed and towns like East Hampton are no longer the global source for labor-intensive, old-fashioned manufactured products such as bells. But Matt Bevin is determined to surmount the problems of manufacturing in New England and reverse the fortunes of Bevin Bros.

"I will turn 65 in 2032, the year Bevin Bros. celebrates its 200th birthday," he says. "It's not a bad lifetime goal to promise that we'll still be around then."

Buck writes for the Hartford (Conn.) Courant

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