About three years ago, John Hyndman, building manager at First Baptist Church decided to venture into the long-abandoned tower as part of an overall facility check, and it was not a pretty sight. Amidst a mountain of pigeon guano, nests, bird carcasses and unhatched eggs, he found a hidden gem: a set of J.C. Deagan Chimes dating back to the 1920s.
If you’re not familiar with Deagan Chimes, we’re talking about a 20-foot-high complex piece of machinery, supported by heavy timbers. Sliding “hammers” bang against 10 vertical metal pipes that range from eight to 14 feet long, operated by relay switches connected to a keyboard in a chamber below, allowing a musician to play the tubes like a piano.
Only the oldest of congregation members remembered hearing them in their childhood. Most members didn’t even know they existed.
Hyndman, a tinkerer and putterer extraordinaire, decided to renovate the chimes. First he sealed off the open tower slats with plywood”except for the bottom two all the way around, which he covered with netting to keep the birds out and allow some air in. Then he had to shovel out the you-know-what and sanitize everything with bleach. Next he made schematic drawings of the wiring, which wasn’t in such bad shape. The motor, however, was frozen with damage and had to be rebuilt. Until then, he used old car batteries to provide power. He remembers the thrill of seeing the first spark.
God knows this isn’t his only duty (“You should see the heating system our forefathers left us,” he observes), but he devoted an hour or two each day exploring and learning, cleaning and connecting.
He discovered a mentor on the Internet, a guy named Bill Pugh in Manhattan, Kan., who has made the restoration of Deagan Chimes his life’s mission and who has been more than generous with advice and encouragement. He even paid a couple of visits to examine the device.
But Hyndman knew the church didn’t have funds to pay for a professional restoration, so he took it upon himself, an hour here, an hour there.
The set plays 10 notes, from F to G with a couple of flats (B & E) thrown in for good measure. At some point, dampers were added to control the echoes and allow more precise tones.
The chimes are played manually. At the bottom of the tight circular staircase leading to and from the tower, solenoid switches on the wall above the rebuilt motor send signals to the rectangular striker boxes on top of each hammer. It’s all controlled by a small wooden box, containing a very narrow keyboard. Press a key, a chime sounds, echoing in the plywood-contained chamber upstairs.
Hyndman, who is himself a musician (he directs the church’s handbell choir), has the original music book that came with the chimes. It contains everything from the sacred (“Nearer My God to Thee”) to the traditional (“Suwanee River”) to the topical”Hyndman played “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the Cubs’ post-season run in 2003.
Many churches would just discard something this cumbersome but Hyndman says, “There’s something to be said for preserving historic things.” He’s about a year away from reopening the tower and allowing the community to enjoy the sounds. At that point, the keyboard will be reconnected to the organ in the sanctuary.
Hyndman opens the book and plays “Blest Be the Tie that Binds.”
When some of the older congregation members first heard the device, he recalled, it brought tears to their eyes.
• Bill Pugh’s website, www.deagan.com, has some pictures of renovated Deagan chime parts and buildings across the country where he’s done restoration work.