At Rebuilt Bevin Bros. Factory, Memories, Magic And Hard Work


Bevin Bell

Bevin Bell (John Woike, Hartford Courant / November 19, 2012)

EAST HAMPTON

— The pace is faster than fast as Joanne Fiondella bags and packs Salvation Army bells by the hundreds. She and the rest of the crew at the Bevin bell factory know these bells are needed this year, this week, now.

The red bells with the wooden handles ship out as they're done. A few hundred yards away are the remains of the old factory, where six generations of Bevins made bells from 1832 until last Memorial Day weekend, when a lightning strike burned the place to the ground. New place, but same old company — the Bevin Bros. Manufacturing Co. — and most of the same employees.

And they are thankful for what they say has been, in the end, an OK year.

"I think about the fire a lot," said Fiondella, with lean, muscular arms, braided gray-brown hair and deep-set eyes showing a few months of stress.

Things looked grim when Fiondella got a call the night of the fire from Matt Bevin, president of Bevin Bros. "I have some really bad news. The factory is on fire," he told her.

Not only did the fire throw her out of work, but just the Friday before, her landlord gave her 30 days notice to leave the house where she'd lived for 25 years, where she raised her children. He'd sold the house.

On a bright note, Bevin raised everyone's spirits when he vowed to rebuild the last bell factory in East Hampton, the town known as Belltown USA. Cards and emails poured in, senators came calling, workers hoisted a flag over the rubble and a small core of employees stayed on to start the long, hard slog of salvaging tools and setting up shop nearby.

But that didn't help 53-year-old Fiondella, at least not when she was moving a lifetime of possessions, while getting only $156 a week in unemployment benefits and looking for work.

"I went all over. A lot of people, when they find out you work for Bevin Bell, they don't want to hire you because they know you're going back," Fiondella said. "I missed the people. I missed the work. ... I just sat around and moped."

True to his word, Bevin brought Fiondella back full time at the start of October, in a hastily established factory with equipment cobbled together.

For the last six weeks, Fiondella and a handful of others have been back, working in the rhythmic din of a 150-ton press — ka-CHUNG, ka-CHUNG, ka-CHUNG — a comforting sound to anyone in factory life.

Across a haze of sodium vapor light, even closer to the towering, 44-year-old Minster press, Austin Gardner presides over his tool shop, nestled in a brick enclave with a manual lathe, a Bridgeport milling machine, a surface grinder, and a Black & Decker toaster oven for heating small parts. The surface grinder was forgotten in this long vacant factory — which Bevin Bros. leases, but owned decades ago — until Gardner figured out he could tear down a wall and move it across the floor.

For Gardner, 72, the fire meant more work, not less. He was down to 20 hours a week, a few years after suffering a stroke that forced him to learn anew how to walk, talk and eat. But a toolmaker after a factory fire is like a switch-hitting power hitter in the World Series. He figured he'd have a couple of weeks off, but no way. It's game time, full-time.

"That's life," the Colchester resident said. "When you bounce back, it's a good year."

The work of rebuilding a factory is different from the work of running a busy one, and both are happening at Bevin Bros. The company can't just fill orders, it has to restore the tools. Dozens of the dies that are used to make the bells — some customized to include customers' logos in the stamping — were saved in the fire. Without them, there would be no company left at all. But each die must be meticulously rebuilt with new surfaces, pins, springs and bushings.

Gardner confers with Bevin on a sticky problem. "It will probably cost $300 for the heat treating," he said.

"I'd rather spend $300 than $30,000 for a new die," Bevin replied.

It's a puzzle. Until a die is restored, a customer can't order bells from Bevin. And until the orders happen, Bevin said, "I don't have the work for people. They're coming back as work justifies it."

So far, Bevin has brought back 11 of 19 people, and PSI Plus, an affiliated metal cylinder container company, which Bevin owns with longtime Bevin employee Doug Dilla, has brought back its seven workers.

Some customers could wait; others could not.

Featured Stories

CTnow is using Facebook comments on stories. To comment on ctnow.com articles, sign into Facebook and enter your comment in the field below. Comments will appear in your Facebook News Feed unless you choose otherwise. To report spam or abuse, click the X next to the comment. For guidelines on commenting, click here.

BUSINESS MIDDAY


BUSINESS MIDDAY

Business Midday Get daily business news sent directly to your inbox for free weekdays at 1 p.m.



SEE SAMPLE | SIGN IN
After signing in, click on your username at the top left of this screen and then on "My Newsletter Subscriptions."