Martha’s Vineyard shop owner revives a Fourth of July tradition
Each Fourth of July in the Martha’s Vineyard town of Vineyard Haven, the joyful sound of ringing bells fills the air right around 2 p.m. Since 2012, a small but dedicated group of volunteers and merchants, led by Jane Chandler of The Beach House gift shop on Main Street, has been working to re-establish an American tradition and “let freedom ring,” echoing the famous line from the song “My Country, ’Tis of Thee.” While Chandler launched her initiative independently, it just happens to coincide with a larger nationwide push to revive the practice of bell ringing on Independence Day.
Why bells? The answers lie with our Founding Fathers, and they trace back to the Liberty Bell. In the early years of our nation, the Liberty Bell rang from the tower of the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia (now known as Independence Hall) to mark important anniversaries, such as the signing of the Constitution of the United States, and to commemorate the deaths of luminaries such as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson—both of whom passed away in otherworldly coincidence on July 4, 1826.
Legend holds that the Liberty Bell also rang on the original Fourth of July to mark the signing of the Declaration of Independence; facts, however, tell a different story. Though the Second Continental Congress approved the document on July 4, 1776, “most of the delegates signed on August 2,” according to the website, history.com, “but several … signed on a later date.” The National Constitution Center, located in Philadelphia’s Independence Mall, notes in its online blog that: “A magazine writer in 1847 made up the story of the bell ringing on the first Independence Day.” Additionally, “The bell was originally known as the State House Bell. In the late 1830s, it acquired the name of the Liberty Bell when it became a symbol of the anti-slavery movement.”
Nevertheless, symbols often loom larger than historical details. The iconic Liberty Bell would continue to ring in celebration and commemoration for many years, up until 1846, when it sustained the famous crack that turned the venerable bell into a silent monument.
Following the Civil War, however, July Fourth celebrations shifted to a tradition that remains customary today: fireworks displays. In his 1966 book, “A Celebration of Bells,” Eric Sloane attributes the change in part to the influx of Chinese immigrants, but also notes that “the country was accustomed to the noise of cannon fire and bombs, and the sound of bells on the Fourth of July became an almost completely forgotten custom.”
One area where the tradition of bell ringing lived on—in tandem with its louder, more visual counterpart—was Martha’s Vineyard. According to an 1880 issue of the Vineyard Gazette, “The village bells were well exercised by the boys in ringing a paean to the ever-welcome ‘Fourth’ with its stores of crackers, spinning wheels, torpedoes, et cetera.” Nevertheless, the practice of bell ringing fell quiet for the better part of the 20th century.
Enter perhaps the most iconic personality of the 1960s: John Fitzgerald Kennedy. On June 26, 1963, he delivered in Germany his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, which illustrated America’s ideals on a global stage. “Freedom has many difficulties, and democracy is not perfect,” he asserted, “but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in.” On the very same day, according to John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum documents, Congress approved Kennedy’s resolution “that the signing of the Declaration of Independence should be observed each year by ringing bells throughout the United States at 2 p.m. on the Fourth of July, or at such other time on that day as may be determined by local authority.” Kennedy himself was able to honor his resolution to “ring freedom bells” only once before he was cut down by Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullet in November 1963.
In 2013, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, groups across the country encouraged citizens to follow the late president’s appeal to ring bells. No Greater Love, self-described as “a non-profit, patriotic, humanitarian organization, which honors our fallen and their grieving families, our troops, and our veterans,” called on Americans to revive the tradition of bell ringing at 2 p.m. on the Fourth of July. Its outreach campaign included an invitation in the syndicated advice column “Dear Abby,” suggesting that, “As we celebrate our freedom, let us also honor the lives of those who sacrificed theirs for our precious liberty.”
On Martha’s Vineyard, Chandler was ahead of the curve; the shop owner had launched her initiative to revive Kennedy’s resolution with the help of fellow merchants a year earlier. Chandler’s connection to the tradition is personal as well as patriotic. Her father died when she was 18; her mother later gave her bells that had belonged to him. “I loved the bells and used them on the Christmas hayride every year,” Chandler recalls. “Over time, nearly all of them were lost.”
Her love for bells continued, though, which inspired her to carry a variety of them in her gift shop and led her to read Sloane’s book, where she discovered Kennedy’s resolution. She laments that “the tradition has been lost; we’ve gotten away from the meaning of the Fourth of July. We’re so fast-paced, so stopping for two minutes is poignant and necessary.”
Each year on the Fourth of July, Chandler passes her bells out along Main Street in Vineyard Haven just before 2 p.m., and picks them up afterward. She has also called on local churches to join in; First Baptist Church obliged in 2016, and Chandler hopes that more will follow suit. “You can ring bells wherever you are,” she notes, “even on a picnic. Everyone should have this freedom—everywhere.”
Liza Coogan, of Vineyard Haven, worked for Chandler years ago and has been active in the revival. She describes Chandler as “a lover of tradition, making sure each season and holiday is celebrated in a gracious way, her shop reflecting her belief that we are all in this together.” The annual event in front of the Vineyard Haven stores, Coogan adds, shows that “we are a community searching for truth and freedom in a world with so much pain and anguish.”
In conjunction with the bells, Chandler started fundraising for veterans, asking businesses and customers to contribute 4 percent of sales and purchases on the Fourth. “Instead of always looking up to the government, we can just do it,” Chandler says. “There’s no overhead to putting a bucket outside your business. It could be four cents or 40 cents or 40 dollars; it’s whatever you can give. The 4 percent is just a starting point—let’s do something.”
The Vineyard Haven Business Association has also joined the effort, with a goal of not only helping with the revival but also using it to raise money for island veterans, according to a press release. Bill Stafursky of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services’ Veterans Outreach Program is another supporter; his organization participated in bell ringing for the first time in 2016. He appreciates that the proceeds go directly into the hands of veterans to help with basic living expenses. “We’re able to help out with housing issues, that kind of thing,” he says. Stafursky hopes to see the movement spread across the islands and to the mainland, and he plans to create handouts and literature to help it grow across the state. “I see it as something we should be doing nationally,” he says. “It’s a small amount of time to stop and think about where we came from.”
As “Dear Abby” wrote in a 2013 column supporting the initiative: “Readers, engraved on the Liberty Bell are the words ‘Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the inhabitants thereof.’ So let’s do it. Shake any bell you happen to have. Our freedom is something to celebrate!”