If you’ve been in Lexington during the spring or summer, you’ve probably heard the unmistakable sound of the bell from the Old Belfry. Every Patriot’s Day it helps to announce the arrival of the British Regulars during the Battle of Lexington Reenactment. Perhaps you’ve been in town during the Historical Society’s week-long summer camp and have heard it as participants of the camp take turns ringing the bell. But what’s the story of the Old Belfry? The unique and somewhat forgotten history of one of the more lesser known properties the Historical Society cares for starts years before its clanging bells alerted the townspeople of Lexington to the approach of the British Regulars.
Charles Hudson doesn’t discuss the belfry in much detail in his book History of the Town of Lexington, but he does discuss the origins of the structure. He mentions a specific town meeting held on June 15, 1761 when Isaac Stone presented the town with a bell “weighted four hundred and sixty-three pounds” and the Town’s conclusion that a structure to house the bell should be placed “on ye top of ye Hill upon ye North side of Liet. Jonas Munroes house” (Hudson, 60). However, this site would not be the structure’s permanent home.
After the death of Jonas, his son John asked the town that his property tax be reduced in return for allowing the belfry to be on his land. The town resisted the proposal, leading to the first relocation of the belfry, when rather stealthily on one night in 1767, a group of unknown people secretly moved the belfry to the Town Common. This secret move instigated a small bit of drama in town and even made its way on to Town Meeting’s agenda in hopes of resolving the issue. Eventually the decision was reached to move the belfry to a different part of the Common. This third location of the belfry is where the structure would be when the Battle of Lexington occurred on April 19th, 1775 and its bell would ring out in unison with many other alarms during those early morning hours (this location is now marked by a boulder, placed on the Common in 1910). The location marked by the boulder is where the structure would remain until 1797 at which point it was sold to the Parker family and moved to their homestead on Spring Street and used as a wheelwright shop.
It wasn’t until 1891 that the Old Belfry would come under the auspices of the Historical Society. At a meeting in February of 1891, Mr. James S. Munroe, after purchasing the Old Belfry from the Parker family, offered it to the Historical Society “if they would move it to town and place it in a prominent place” (LHS Proceedings Vol. II, ii). The Historical Society agreed and a committee was selected and tasked to “restore it to a suitable location near its original position” (Hudson, p. 490). Later that month, the Society voted to place the Old Belfry on the lot for the new Hancock School on Clarke Street, marking the belfry’s fifth location in town. On Saturday April 18, 1891 the Society held a dedication service to the restoration of the Old Belfry.
However, as happens with wooden buildings, the belfry began to fall into a state of disrepair and decay. The original belfry would cease to exist when on June 20, 1909 a strong gale wind would damage the structure beyond repair. The Historical Society formed a committee of three people who would “have full charge of rebuilding the Old Belfry . . . on such site as the Committee may select.” (LHS Proceedings Vol. IV, 182). The reproduction was installed in March 1910 and was “constructed as nearly as possible on its old lines and on the same site.” (Proceedings Vol. IV, 184). After only three years the belfry was relocated one last time, from the back end of Belfry Hill to its present site on the front part of the hill.
If you find yourself at the corner of Clarke Street and Massachusetts Avenue, follow the trail that leads to the Old Belfry, but mind your step as the trail is rocky and steep in some sections. More info on the belfry.
-Chris Kauffman, Education and Interpretation Manager
Featuring the voices of Lexington Historical Society permanent staff and occasional guest authors.