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Historic sounds that inspire

PHOTO CAPTION: Walter Faust Jr. playing the Courthouse bells by control box on July 4, 1981.

PHOTO CAPTION: Walter Faust Jr. playing the Courthouse bells by control box on July 4, 1981.

By Tara V. Kohlenberg —

Time is elusive. It moves slowly but passes quickly. It is also easy to lose track of time. As a child growing up in New Braunfels, only a few markers of time stood out to me: the twelve-noon siren from Central Fire Station; the streetlights coming on; and the TV PSA, “It’s 10 p.m., do you know where your children are?” Then came our nation’s Bicentennial Celebration in 1976.

Walter Faust Jr., a well-known New Braunfels music teacher, gifted the city/county with four bells honoring his mother, Lottie Pfeuffer Faust, for the Courthouse Tower. It was his donation to the local Bicentennial Celebration. Faust had seen the stately 1892 Victoria County Courthouse by J. Reily Gordon, complete with strike-bell and clocks in the tower, as well as European city halls with bells in their towers. He was confident that the 1898 Comal County Courthouse tower, also designed by J. Reily Gordon, would house the bells spectacularly.

The bells were cast by Petit and Fritsen Bell Foundry in Aarle-Rixtel, Holland (the same one that cast the bells for Sts. Peter & Paul Catholic Church). The I.T. Verdin Company of Cincinnati, Ohio furnished and installed the chimes in the tower for a total cost of $13,644, paid for by Faust. The bells arrived in late September of 1975, in plenty of time to be installed before the premier performance on New Year’s Eve.

The largest of the bells, or the C note, weighs 583 pounds and measures 29.75 inches in diameter. On one side of the large bell is a dedication to his mother, Lottie Pfeuffer Faust. On the other side of the bell it is inscribed, “In God We Trust — Let Freedom Ring.” The smallest bell is the A note, weighing 154 pounds, with an 18.75-inch diameter. The F bell weighs 253 pounds and is 22.5 inches in diameter. The G bell is 21 inches in diameter, weighing 198 pounds. That is a combined weight of 1188 pounds. The original “heavy metal music.”

The cast bronze bells (80 percent virgin copper and 20 percent block tin) were placed on a steel framework and timbers in the tower. But getting them up to the tower presented a bit of a challenge. Since the windows of the tower were not big enough for the largest bell, they had to do a work-around. They used the elevator (weight limit 1,500 pounds) to get to the third floor, then two flights of stairs to the tower. It took ten men and a dolly all day to get the bells upstairs. To further protect the tower, they installed special vibro-isolators in the mounting system to prevent any vibration affecting the tower structure itself.

So, just how does one ring a huge, 583-pound bell you may ask (with thoughts of Quasimodo flashing through the back of your mind)? It is simpler than you might think. They work on an electric clock timer mechanism that takes care of ringing them. The bells play a Westminster Quarters chime, one measure of four notes every 15 minutes, then chime the time on the hour. Westminster? Yes, Westminster, like the Palace of Westminster in England. The melody is said to be the variation of the 6th and 7th bars of “I know That My Redeemer Liveth” from Handel’s Messiah written in 1845. Okay, so it was weird that the bells play an English chime, especially since the dedication was commemorating America’s independence from the Crown of England, but the “1845” tie in? I am okay with that!

Although the bells came programmed with the Westminster Quarters (also known as Cambridge Quarters Chime), there was a manual override to allow someone to play other music on the bells. Walter Faust Jr. was a talented pianist and organist. He created numerous musical arrangements for the four simple notes. On New Year’s Eve of 1976, the Courthouse bells were officially dedicated to his mother with the very, unique first public performance.

During the Courthouse renovations that were completed in 2013, the tower bell mount structure was reinforced and the electric controller updated. Last summer, and most notably Fourth of July, the Courthouse bells were absent due to controller issues. The controller has been replaced and is ready for music this Fourth.

Just to satisfy my own curiosity, I did a quick search of bells and bell towers in Texas. Not a lot of information is available online, but I noticed that of the bell towers mentioned, courthouses and city buildings had clocks with single strike bells (like “Back to the Future”). Churches and universities were more likely to have Westminster Chimes or something similar with three to five bells. On the larger scale of bells, is a carillon (ker-i-lan) which is a system of 23 or more bells that can play more complex musical compositions. There are only about 10 carillons in the state of Texas, including the University of Texas, Baylor University and Texas Tech University

For nearly 50 years, the Courthouse bells have inspired us in victory, in celebration and in memoriam. Mostly, they keep us on track every day, every hour and quarter hour, gently reminding us that we live in a very special place. Thank you, Walter Faust Jr., for inspiring us!

Sources: Sophienburg Museum & Archives; Mike Boursier, Comal County Director of Facilities; The Guild of Carillonneurs in North America.