After being silenced for more than 20 years, the sounds of the Westminster chimes from the Hillsdale County Courthouse can be heard once again.
Last month, facility director for Hillsdale County Randy Finley and his crew climbed more than seven flights of stairs and ladders to the top of the clock tower to install new electric relays for the chimes. As a result, every hour on the hour, the clock plays the same tune as the church of St. Mary the Great in Cambridge.
“We got the old clock working again,” Finley said. “It has been broken for over two decades. We had a bid from a clock tower repair firm for more than $6,000. But we did it ourselves for $45. People like it, everyone seems to enjoy the chimes.”
The Westminster chimes and the courthouse clock itself have a more than 100 year history in downtown Hillsdale. Shortly after the dedication of the current courthouse in 1899, residents in the town thought it would be the perfect place for a clock.
According to newspaper articles and primary source documents provided by the Mitchell Research Center, the clock was donated by William W. Mitchell — a two year attendee of Hillsdale College — in 1910.
In a pamphlet celebrating a 75-year rededication and renovation of the clock tower, Mitchell’s original comments and thoughts on the project were printed.
“The town should make tender of a clock and chime of bells to be placed in the tower of the courthouse for the use of the people of Hillsdale County,” the pamphlet said.
Sometime in the 1960s, however, the chimes stopped. While primary source documents are vague in pinpointing a date or concrete reason as to why the chimes stopped, an article in the News Advertiser in 1985 stated that it was due to a judge who found them annoying and disruptive to his courtroom.
“A former circuit judge was behind getting the four bells disconnected,” the article said. “They were too loud for his liking.”
Due to harsh weather and lack of use, the bells eventually fell into disrepair. The capital campaign headed by the Hillsdale Historical Society and other benefactors aimed to bring back the chimes and do a complete renovation including cleaning and sandblasting the foundations and beams, removing outdated electronics, and installing new motors for the chimes.
By the fall of 1985, the Omega Tower Clock Corporation had completely renovated and reinstalled the chimes. The clock, which played chimes every 15 minutes, and then the full Westminster chime on the hour, brought joy to many people in town. The pamphlet passed out during the dedication in 1985 printed testimonies of numerous people who remembered it from their youth in the early 20th century.
“Marna J. Playford recalled visiting her grandfather who was County Sheriff at the Old Jail Building at the ‘Courthouse Square,’” the pamphlet said. “She would listen to the chimes every 15 minutes. Being able to hear them again will bring back many happy memories of visits with her grandparents.”
But bad luck, much like the clock, struck again. While Finley said he couldn’t pinpoint the exact time the chimes stopped working again, he knew it was at least two decades since residents stopped hearing them. Until recently, residents would not hear the Westminster chime on every quarter or full hour, instead hearing just one chime every hour.
Finley said he was happy to bring some history back with his staff.
“It’s a good feeling to have the chimes back,” Finley said. “It’s even more special when your department can accomplish a task like this, something outside of their usual day-to-day activities.”