SWANZEY — Every year on Independence Day, a bell rings out through the center of Swanzey. It’s a tradition dating back more than 130 years — and, as it happens, one enshrined in the deed of the local library.
A section of the Mount Caesar Union Library’s deed, dated May 16, 1885, reads, “And as long as the United States remain free and independent, the boys in the neighborhood shall have the right, unmolested, to ring the bell on each succeeding Fourth of July.”
Of course, the practice is no longer limited to boys, according to Rob Kenney, senior trustee and treasurer for the library’s board of trustees. But since he came to Swanzey in 1957, he said, local kids have come to the library on Old Homestead Highway each year to take a turn tugging the giant rope that rings the bell housed in the building’s belfry.
The library promotes the event through its newsletter and website, Kenney explained, with varying levels of participation from year to year.
“I’ve been a trustee for over 30 years, and I think that we would get regularly, on the Fourth of July, 10 to a dozen children,” he said. “And now some years, we only get one or two.”
The bell dates back to the structure’s days as a school, said Richard Scaramelli, a former library trustee and local history enthusiast. When the building was a seminary and later an academy, it was used to call students from their dormitory across the street, he said.
The site was added to the N.H. State Register of Historic Places earlier this year.
The exact reason the former owners — George and Lucy J.W. Carpenter — included the bell-ringing in the deed when they donated the property to the nascent Mount Caesar Union Library Association is unclear, according to Scaramelli. But it’s not the only stipulation laid out in the document, which prohibits the use of the building for any “immoral purpose,” such as the sale of “intoxicating liquors or drinks whatever” or “dancing, card playing, gambling or skating.”
Those requirements could have been a product of the couple’s conservative values, Scaramelli said. But there is also some evidence in an account written by Mount Caesar’s first librarian that the building may have been damaged by such activities in the past, he said.
“It turns out that there were reports of vandalism and that some of those proscriptions in the deed probably are addressing issues that had already arisen in fact,” Scaramelli said. “Now, that’s an assumption.”
For the first time this year, the library hopes to add another element to the annual bell-ringing tradition, according to Kenney. Library trustees have been talking with the Swanzey Fire Department about sounding a siren housed atop the library’s cupola.
The siren was installed in the 1930s and was formerly used to alert the local fire company of calls, he said.
“That’s got quite a history attached to it. It’s not in use anymore, but it is on top of our building. So if we can get the fire department to cooperate, which so far they have, we are going to ring the siren at noon,” Kenney said. “So that would maybe become a new tradition, or it may be the last time the thing is ever heard.”
Marking the Fourth of July holiday with a bell-ringing is not an uncommon practice. The town of Hancock, for example, has long included the ringing of the meetinghouse bell in its Independence Day celebration, and in 1963, President John F. Kennedy proclaimed the holiday as National Bell Ringing Day.
As for Swanzey’s own bell-ringing, the deed requirement was recently written about by Wendy Pelletier in the June edition of the N.H. Land Surveyors Association’s newsletter.
Because the tradition is preserved in the library’s deed, technically there could be legal ramifications if it ever lapsed, Scaramelli said. But he said it’s unlikely that anyone would bring such a grievance — and the library has always been conscientious about keeping the custom going.
“It’s a pretty painless thing to do just to publicize and make the library open for an hour on the Fourth of July, and kids come and they have a great time hanging on that rope, ringing the bell,” Scaramelli said. “So that’s a pretty feel-good proposition coming from the deed.”
From Kenney’s perspective, beyond giving local kids a chance to have fun and “make noises happen,” the Mount Caesar Union Library’s bell-ringing is part of the town’s history.
“It’s something I strongly personally believe in, [to] keep history alive. ... Why do I think it’s important to keep the tradition alive?” Kenney said. “Because I love the history of the town, as many others do.”
Children can visit the library Thursday between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. to ring the bell. Library staff plan to sound the siren at noon, Kenney said. Additional information about the library is available at mtcaesarunionlibrary.weebly.com.