Jay Saunders with the bell atop the old Fincastle Baptist Church. Photo by Neil Harvey.

Driving along U.S. 220 in Botetourt County, you can pass through Fincastle in just about a half-minute. 

The town’s Main Street runs perpendicular to the highway, so if you don’t stop, mostly what you see of this county seat is the fire station, a flower shop, a landscaping supply outlet. 

There’s the Heritage Family Market, but it’s closed for a week during the holidays, and Leonardo’s pizza, which is currently shut down as it transitions under new management. They’ve got a Dollar General — anymore, it might seem odd if they didn’t — but even that goes dark most nights by 10 p.m. 

It’s a nice place, a safe place, but also one that tends to draw its shades fairly early.

And yet every New Year’s Eve, in the center of town, this quaint, quiet village of 750 residents unfurls a celebration of surprising scale, texture and volume.

It’s the Bells of Fincastle and it involves a bugle, rooftop shotgun blasts, and elaborate chains of synchronized chimes from five of the town’s storied steeples.

It’s a tradition that has occurred every Dec. 31 for well over a century, and one that will happen again this coming Friday night.

“At a quarter to 12 on New Year’s Eve, the [Circuit] courthouse rings the bell one time,” explained Willie Simmons, whose woodturning shop sits next door to the florist, and whose family is one of a cluster of Botetourt clans that has participated in the event for generations. 

“Twelve seconds later, it’s the Presbyterian church. Just one time. Twelve seconds after that, it’s what used to be the Baptist church. And then another 12 seconds to the Methodist. Then another 12, it’s the Episcopal. And then it comes back to the courthouse again.”

These minute-long rotations circulate clockwise around town until midnight, at which point the courthouse bell strikes 12. A bugler plays taps tobid farewell to the old year, and then the churches issue peals that signify the year ahead, or in this case: two, 10, two and two more to denote “2022.”

Once that concludes, Simmons fires three shells of birdshot from his 16-gauge shotgun into the air, and after that it’s every bell for itself.

“That’s the time for the other churches to all start ringing, and they go continuously for 10 minutes, or as long as our ears can take it,” Simmons said. 

Depending on conditions — wind, crowd-size, your location within town — it can sometimes be difficult to hear every single bell, so the higher the vantage point, the better. A hill in nearby Godwin Cemetery looks down on all five steeples, but usually draws revelers.

“It’s best if everybody is kind of quiet” at least until the shotgun is fired, said Simmons’ cousin, Tony Kessler. “That way you can hear the bells throughout the town.

Then again, he acknowledged, it is New Year’s Eve. 

“I don’t blame them for being kind of rowdy,” Kessler said.

“I look forward to it every year,” Simmons said. “As I’ve gotten older, I wish we could move it to about nine o’clock, because I don’t like staying up that late, but we can’t do that. And it’s important to me.” 

“People who value tradition”

It’s important to the town as well — five of the six steeples depicted in the Fincastle seal are utilized during the event — and the annual ringing has been held for so many years that no one is even truly sure how long it’s been going on.

The town website puts the Bells’ age at in excess of 150 years; Lynne Bolton, president of the Historic Fincastle Society, and a member of Fincastle Presbyterian, believes it may have started sometime in the 1890s, but even that’s not certain.

“The crazy thing is, nothing was ever written down about why our ancestors began it,” she said. 

Indeed, when Roanoke Times reporter Ben Beagle wrote about the ceremony in advance of New Year’s Eve 1959, he noted in his now 63-year-old lede that, even then, its exact age and origins were mysterious. 

Whenever and however it started, the festival’s supporters believe that the important thing is that it carries on. 

“Christmastime for many people is a time of traditions, particularly the new year, thinking about the past and the future. And in Fincastle, we do have a lot of people who value tradition,” Lynne Bolton said.

Bolton’s and Simmons’ families are among the event’s founders, and while some of the other original clans like the Breckinridges, the McDowells, the Pecks and the Waids have become less involved, “newer” families like the Campbells, the Kesslers and the Burtons have stepped in over past decades to keep the bells ringing. 

General District Court Judge Kerry Campbell, who retired in 2012 but remains active as a substitute, tolls the bell at the Methodist church with his brother Bill.

At 71, he’s a second generation bell ringer, having inherited the task from his father Louis Campbell, but time and tradition carry on.

“I was pleased to take my son up there when he was nine months old. I carried him up in the steeple. And he’s 37 now and can say he’s done it all his life,” Judge Campbell said last week.

The involvement of particular families, he said, is more by tradition than exclusivity.

“We invite people to join, people who’ve never had a chance to do it. Members of the church, members of the community, who say, ‘I’d like to do it,’” Campbell explained.

Tony Kessler is 67 and has been on hand every year since he was in high school. For a time, his brother played taps, but in more recent years, those duties have carried over to Tony’s son, Daniel, who performs the call on the same old Boy Scout bugle. 

“It just kind of got passed down from generation to generation,” Kessler said of the task.

Chipper Bolton, also 67, is another long-timer, in charge of manning the Baptist belfry.

“I’ve been ringing the bell for over 50 years,” he explained, and recalled a massive snow that fell early on in his tenure, when he was 16, when he had to drive a garden tractor to town to get through the accumulation.

While severe weather is not remotely in the forecast this year — Friday’s temperatures are expected to range between 50 and 70 degrees — Bolton said it’s an optimal ingredient for the Bells.

“The greatest time when you’re doing it is when it’s snowing. And nobody’s driving or blowing any horns. It’s so quiet and peaceful to do it then.”

Bill Campbell, Alex Campbell and Kerry Campbell, in the bell tower of the Methodist church. Courtesy of Kerry Campbell.

Degree of Difficulty

Here’s a point about the Bells of Fincastle that might not immediately jump out: It’s an extremely difficult task to undertake and pull off well.

The overall operation involves at least seven people, all trying to work together and synchronize from five locations.

Because of the number of ringers involved, communication by cell phone or radio isn’t particularly practical, so they coordinate largely by using flashlights, their clocks and watches, their ears and the disciplines of the past.

As portions of the bell sequence involve precise single tolls, the ringers are often required to throw the clapper themselves, by hand, to strike the tone at just the right moment, while also trying not to deafen themselves in the process.

Bear in mind, too, their work is all being done high up in centuries-old belfries in the dark of night, with windows open amidst whatever climate happens to span the last hour of December and the first of January. Which is to say, things tend to get a bit brisk.

“There have been years that were just incredibly cold,” said Campbell. “And you get up there and it’s, you know, 20 degrees and the wind is blowing. That’s a brutal 30 minutes you’re spending in that steeple. It’s not like you have any real shelter when you’re up there.”

“Back in the days of the old courthouse, it was even more of an adventure,” Kessler recalled. 

“If you stepped off of this little pathway, you could potentially fall through the ceiling into one of the courtrooms. You had to stay on a little wooden truss. That was always cool and scary and kind of an adventure,” he said.

Hosting the party also limits the fun — while crowds of spectators and revelers down below cheer and kiss and toast each new year, the bell teams are mostly on their own, with work to do. That can start to chafe, year after year for, say, a half-century.

“I’ve never been there during the festivities,” Chipper Bolton said recently. “I’ve always been up in a belfry.”

Newfound roles

Despite the advanced age of the Bells of Fincastle, it’s not immune to all rigors of time. 

The center of its rotation, the Jeffersonian-designed Botetourt County Circuit Courthouse, is scheduled to be demolished next summer, well before New Year’s Eve 2022, and not fully rebuilt until 2024. In the interim, the court will move to a temporary location and the building’s spire and bell will be put into storage until later in the construction phase. 

This mirrors a switch that occurred in the early 1970s, after the previous courthouse — on the same spot as the current one — was destroyed by fire. During the celebrations of that period, the bell was propped up on sawhorses and rung from there, a scenario that will likely reoccur for at least two New Years to come.

Similarly, in 2005, the congregation of Fincastle’s Baptist Church on East Main Street moved to a new and larger location on Roanoke Road. The original building, which dates back to the 1890s, has since been converted into a residence, but the bell tower remains and it’s the one still used on New Year’s Eve.

“We actually got a telephone call from the town manager, before we even moved in, alerting us to our newfound role in the community,” said Jay Saunders, the contractor and artist who moved into the church with his family two years ago. 

“We love being a part of things,” Saunders said.

They’re visited each New Year’s by Chipper Bolton and other bell ringers, who navigate the narrow stairwell up to the tower, and whom each year have signed the ladder that leads up to the ceiling hatch. Most of the ladders of the belfries bear years’ worth of dates, signatures and notes written by the crews that handled the tolling. 

“Given the architecture in the history of the town, steeples are a focal point and something that is hard to miss if you have any type of vantage point to look at the town,” Campbell said. “The steeples, the churches, the tradition of ringing the bells and those staples, it just all melds together.”

Neil Harvey is a writer who lives in Roanoke.