The Bell Passes Bedminister

 
 

It is September of the year 1777. The weather is crisp and clear, a relief after last week's rain. The roads are dry on the surface but moisture remains deep in the road bed. There is a feel of autumn in the air. The leaves are showing their golden side in the early morning sun. Birds call one another across ribbon of road that winds through the woods and fields signaling that maybe this is just not another September morning.

And this morning is different. Since sun up, people have been gathering along the Old Bethlehem Road. Children climb the trees and scan the horizon towards Hilltown. Women with toddlers clinging to their dresses gather in clutches like hens - adjusting their shawls against the crisp morning air. Some, with babes in their arms, shift their weight as the sun strikes the face of the child. Everywhere a little lane crosses the Great Road leading to Philadelphia, people are gathering.

At the road at the top of the ridge, there are several carts gathered. Horses are hobbled in the nearby field. A sort of festival atmosphere permeates the crowd. Women exchange news of families, while children play tag.

The men have gathered into small groups - discussing the harvest now in progress - or the political. situation that has brought them out on the workday. Some watch the sky for threatening clouds. Others sit on the ground in silence - watching the road.

The Bells of Philadelphia are coming. Eleven of them are being moved out of the city to safety. One of these is the Old One - some call it the Sate House Bell; others the Liberty Bell. But, it means something special to everyone. It has become a symbol of the liberty that has become precious to us all.

It has been quite a project to move these bells. It had to be done with some little haste. After all, the British are about to occupy Philadelphia. There has been a fear among all the patriots of the city that the British would melt down all the large bells to be used for shot. So the plan to move them to safety was devised.

Of greatest concern was the Liberty Bell.

It was ordered in 1751 to commemorate the 50th birthday of Pennsylvania under its charter of 1701. Cast at Whitechapel, in England, it arrived here in 1752.

It was tested before it was hung in the State House, and during the testing, it cracked. Pass & Stowe of Philadelphia re-cast it to repair the crack, in doing so, the tone was impaired. So, they re-cast it again. Finally it was hung in the tower of the State House in June of 1752. It tolled when the Provincial Assembly met in Philadelphia in 1753, 1754 & 1755. It was tolled in protest to the Stamp Act in 1764. Again, the following year it rang when the resolutions against the Stamp Act were passed. When the Stamp Act was repealed in 1766, it was tolled.

It was eight years before the bell rang again. Then it was to protest the landing of tea -with the tax - in the port.

In 1775, when the port of Boston was closed, and Massachusetts asked for aid from her sister colonies, the bell rang again.

And in 1775, at the outbreak of hostilities signifying the beginning of the war, the Bell pealed forth the news to one and all.

Perhaps the most auspicious occasion on which the Bell had been rung was at the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence. That was only on July 8, of last year (1776). Now it was truly the Liberty bell. It did proclaim liberty throughout the land.

Now, a year later, the Old One, as well as the other bells of the city were in danger. Even the Continental Congress had high-tailed it out of the city.

Colonel Flowers has been in charge of the removal of the bells. Someone remembered that there are a lot of German farmers who come into the city with carts selling their farm crops. It would be no difficulty to find good, honest, German farmers to undertake driving the bells to safety in Bethlehem, once the bells were loaded on their wagons.

The bells were removed at night - no use to give the Tories anything to talk about. Hidden under straw, the bells got to Germantown the first night, where they were concealed the next day. Drivers and oxen had to be arranged for the trip - and the men needed rest after a hectic night.

Peter Mickley is driving the Liberty Bell, he comes from White Hall - up in Northampton County. The remaining drivers are like Peter - loyal to the cause of the Revolution.

Now the trip to safety begins in earnest. The main road north is chosen so that better time can be made. Roads at this time of the year can be problem, especially if we have rain.

Following the Old Bethlehem road, leave Chestnut Hill and head north. By nightfall of the first daylight are just below Line Lexington, almost in Hilltown Township.

Something this large and important just could not be kept a secret. News of the progression of the wagons preceded them up the Old Bethlehem Road. People came out and stood along the road watching the wagons lumber past, watching with fear and foreboding. What was to be the outcome of the struggle which the Colonies had become involved? And if the British were in Philadelphia. how long before they would be here?

It is the morning of the third day of the trip of the bells, Peter Mickley and the other drivers are up before dawn. They hope to make Quakertown (then Richland) before nightfall so they must be on their way early. The road ahead is not an easy one - there are many hills to traverse - many streams to ford.

A man on horseback approaches riding hard. He dismounts and runs to where Mickley and the other drivers are standing, A wagon train is on the way. That means protection for the bells. Better to wait and join the train. There is also an escort with the train. That is even better.

The drivers heave a sigh of relief. There may be complications in joining the train, but the protection for the bells is worth it.

The sun is not over the horizon when the sound of the wagons is heard at the encampment. The drivers hasten to be ready to pull out and join the train. Ahead of the wagons are men on horseback. One of them rides over to where Mickley is ready to climb on his cart. He briefs Mickley on the wagon train that is coming up the road. Seems there are over 500 wagons in all - and Colonel Polk of North Carolina is in charge. He directs Mickley to pull out and lead the way - the other wagons will follow. The escort will ride on up ahead and be on the look out for trouble.

In Bedminster, word that the Bell and its companion bells are on their way has reached Robert McNeely. He sends a rider off to tell his neighbors - most of them have sons, husbands, and friends in the Continental Army. Many have been gone for over a year.

It doesn't look too good for the Colonists at this time - nothing but defeats. And now this - Philadelphia in the hands of the British and the bells of the city are on the run. To say nothing of hundreds of wagons filled with refugees, carrying with them their personal possessions. Added to the refugees, were the wagons of wounded soldiers, being taken to Bethlehem for care. Maybe one of those soldiers was from Bedminster.

The word is spread rapidly. from farm to farm. It is not too long before horses, carts, wagons, and people on foot make their way toward the Old Bethlehem Road.

Many of the carts have food loaded in the back. Produce from the farm - apples are in plentiful supply this year- and bread. Everything has been hastily gathered together. No telling how long the wait may be - and maybe someone on the train will buy food - or it might be given to someone in need.

It is past mid-morning before a young boy shouts he can see a wagon. It has cleared the ford and is heading toward Bedminster. Now the young children race towards the wagons. They seem to realize that the Liberty Bell, or the Old One, is in the lead wagon.

The pace of the oxen is slow and steady. Older boys try to run beside the wagon and reach to touch the bell. The yoke of the bell has been removed, and the bell is riding on a thick bed of straw or hay.

Mickley drives with his eyes on the road and the oxen. Conversation dies out as the bell passes - and the wagons keep coming. There doesn't seem to be much to say.

They have reached the bottom of the hill now, and the going begins to get a little slower. One of the farmers, Jacob Weisel, steps out into the road and begins to lead the oxen. They've used oxen on these wagons with the bells because of the weight, The State House Bell weighs over 2000 pounds. They feel the oxen will be better on a long trip like this.

Mickley nods his head in thanks to Weisel. The grade is pretty steep here, so they break the ascent by crossing from one side to the other. Mickley watches the Bell from time to time to see it is not slipping. Sam Stover calls out to Mickley who calls back in greeting. They are acquainted through the mill at White Hall. Their conversation is in German - really the common language around here.

As the wagon climbs the hill, the other wagons wait at the bottom. If there is trouble, it is best to have only the one wagon on the hill at a time. One of the escort rides beside the wagon. He also watches the bell carefully.

The silence of the people on the side of the road is accentuated by the sound of turning wheels, the feet of the oxen in the roadbed. and the occasional yell of the escort.

Over there is Martha McNeely. Tears stream down her face, as she watches the slow progress of the wagon.

Colonel Polk wants to stop for the noon meal before fording the Tohickon Creek. Mickley asks Jacob Weisel where the next public house is located. It is just ahead - it is Keichlines - just next to the church on the left over the ridge.

Thomas Armstrong rides up from that direction. He speaks with Mickley, then rides over to the escort. The escort rides back down the hill, returning a few minutes later with several officers. There is gesturing at the field on the right - just over the top of the hill. It seems the wagons are going to pull in there for the noon break. Two of the officers ride back down the hill, to Colonel Polk. The word is being passed from wagon to wagon.

Mickley has decided to go on to Keichlines for his noon meal. Jacob Weisel sends his son George on ahead to tell Abe Keichline that the bell wagons are on their way - as well as most of the officers traveling with the train.

Here at the top of the hill, there seem to be more of the people from Bedminster. Of course, they realize it would be the best vantage point. Bob McNeely with his wife are talking to Bartl White and his wife, Elizabeth. Melchoir Heevener and Bastian Stone are in the group over there. The McNeelys are interested in the escort group. They hope one of their sons will be with them. There are quite a number of crude carts here - with curious men and women peering down the road in disbelief at the large number of wagons yet to climb the hill.

Here comes another cart from Keichline's. It is old William Armstrong - part of this is his land. Of course, there is no doubt that he would agree to having it used by the wagon train. This area has not been fenced in. There is even a crude road cutting over his land to the Great Road Leading to the Meeting House.

Mickley, with Jac Weisel leading, has gone on down to Keichline's Inn. He pulls into the inn yard. William Armstrong is just behind him, Thomas Armstrong rides down into the road, passing the second wagon and joins them in the inn yard. Mickley and Will Armstrong get down from their wagons, while Thomas dismounts his horse. The three men meet and Will Armstrong extends his hand to Mickley. He pats him on the shoulder and gestures toward the wagon. Thomas joins them, and there is more gesturing toward the creek, and across the road toward the open field. They are probably discussing the encampment and the fording of the creek.

Now another group of men in uniform on horseback have entered the inn yard. This is Col. Polk and some of his junior officers, They join Mickley and the Armstrongs. There is more talking and more gesturing toward the creek.

Thomas turns and walks toward the oxen, where the drivers of the other bells have now assembled. He speaks to them, they nod in assent, and head toward the inn. Thomas is evidently going to see to the animals. And not without help. Several of the young men from Bedminster have stepped forward to help him.

By now, a small group of men have gathered in the doorway of the inn. There is Abe Keichline, standing in the doorway, with a smile on his face. He has three sons in the army - and it looks like he is going to have a chance to serve the army as well.

Meanwhile, wagons continue to assemble in the field opposite the church. Many of the owners have climbed the hill on foot, to make it easier for the horses. They are ready for a nice cool drink, as well as their noon meal. There are some small fires going - some sort of food is being cooked. The air is filled with the aromas of all sorts of food. Wandering in and among the group are local farmers, selling what produce they can - mostly bread and apples - the train is reluctant to take on any more provisions.

Some of the men have unhitched the horses and are leading them down to the creek to drink.

While Mickley and his companions have their noon meal, the inn yard fills with the curious. Clusters of boys and men gather around the wagon with the bell. It looks to be about 4 feet in diameter. Someone has pushed the hay away from around the bell and you can see the inscription plainly - it's from the book of Leviticus and says "Proclaim Liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof".

Here, in a small village, on a warm sunny, autumn day, this is indeed, an awe-inspiring sight. The bells, each tied to a wagon, glistening in the noonday sun - the encampment across the way, busy in its own way - the soldiers, bustling to and from the inn - it has an unreal air. How can this be happening here - of all places?

There is Abraham Black and his sons, John and Henry, along with Jacob Leatherman, looking the Bell over now. Old Abe Black looks like he is feeling the raised inscription. Black is the Mennonite minister here and is blind. But he is well liked by everyone.

Here come the officers out of the inn. They mount up and ride out of the inn yard. One rides down toward the creek, the others start over to the encampment. There is a flurry of excitement and action. People from the wagon train are starting to get ready to move on. Horses are being hitched up again, fires are doused, the women and children are climbing back into their wagons.

Here comes Mickley now and the other bell wagon drivers, out of the inn. He crosses the yard to the wagon, and tests the ropes on this bell wagon. Young Henry Eagle comes out of the barn with what looks like an old blanket in his arms. He speaks to Mickley, and Mickley leans down and takes the blanket as young Eagle climbs up on the wagon. Together, they wrap the blanket around the Bell, tucking the ends under the ropes to secure it.

Colonel Polk has come out of the inn, Abe Keichline with him, and they shake hands. The colonel mounts his horse, and rides out. waving to the men in the inn yard.

All the army escort are now on their horses, and the commotion increases. There are wagons everywhere one looks.

One of the soldiers rides up to Mickley and holds up his hand. They are going to let some of the lighter wagons go on first and ford the creek, before the bell wagons. There may be some fear that the lighter wagons will get stuck in any ruts the bell wagons make in the ford.

And the wagons are moving. Pulling out onto the road, and starting down the incline to the creek. Little boys run along the sides of the wagons yelling. Women in the wagons wave to the Bedminster people. There is the sound of the wagons, straining out of the field, now made soft by the traffic that has occurred over it in the last two hours. Whips are cracked, horses strain, and little by little, the wagons move back on the Old Bethlehem Road.

Here come the wagons with the wounded soldiers. They are closely guarded by the escort, and followed by the provision wagons. The stream of wagons has continued for at least a half an hour now. and there are still more to come.

Abe Keichline leans in his doorway, talking to some of the men, and watching the procession. All of them realize that nothing like this will ever happen in Bedminster again.

There are riders coming down the hill from the other direction now. It is William Darrah and Robert Robinson. Robinson saluted the soldier at the entrance of the inn yard, and the two men ride over to where Mickley is patiently waiting to join the wagon train. They shout something to Mickley, who nods affirmatively to them. It appears they are going to ride with Mickley, at least through the fording of the creek. Robinson is a captain in the army, and is home on leave. He is, in fact, the captain of the Bedminster militia.

There goes the last of the civilian wagons, and now the bell wagons start out. Mickley is in the lead. Some of the men in the inn yard mount up to follow the bell to the creek. The Armstrongs climb into their wagon. They, too, will follow the Bell, leaving the train at the bottom of the hill.

The wagons are on the downgrade now. In just a few minutes they will be passing the end of the Armstrong lands. On the left is the township of Rockhill. The Old Bethlehem Road divides the townships, just as the creek divides the township from Haycock. The road turns a little to the right here, and the grade gets steeper.

It is a good thing the weather has been good this week. This creek can be treacherous when the water is high. Thomas Armstrong is on foot now - he is going to help lead the oxen.

They are entering the creek now. Robert Robinson and William Oarrah are on one side, and Thomas Armstrong is on the other side. It is important to keep them in the fording land, so they do not get stuck in the mud, or hit any large boulders on the creek bed.

There are people standing on the other side of the creek. Laudenslager's Inn is over there, and it looks like quite a few people have turned out from Haycock to see the bells on the progress.

Now the men who have followed the wagons from Bedminster are standing on the Bedminster side of the creek, silently watching the advancing wagon train make it's way through the Tohickon.

Some of the escort have ridden back to help the bell wagons make it over the creek. Things seem to be well under control. It is only another 8 miles or so to Richland, and it looks like the train is on schedule.

Men are coming into the creek now to help bring the team out of the water. The fording of the creek is over, and all is well.

The other wagons follow, Thomas Armstrong helps with as much as he can. Some of the Bedminster men have stepped into the creek to help with the wagons, and now there is a line of men, spanning the creek, keeping the line moving.

It is all over. The bells are out of the township and on their way to Bethlehem. Robinson is going on with the Bell - but here comes William Oarrah back across the stream. He nods to the men on the bank and keeps riding.

Men climb back into their waiting carts, others mount their horses and ride up the hill to Keichlines tavern. The young boys trudge up the hill in single file. There is no laughter - no raucous conversation. What has happened to them has been a piece of history.

The future is in doubt. Some wonder if the Bell will ever come back this way. Others hear the sound of drums of war and think of joining the army. After all, you only have to be fourteen. And the uniforms were so impressive.

The women, left at the site of the encampment, look at the ruined field, and think of the refugees. Some remember their hardships in the old country, and fight down the fear that it could happen all over again, here in the new world.

Many wish there was another way to settle disputes between men other than going to war.

And the wounded - what will happen to them? Will they live to see Bethlehem? One of them could have been from Bedminster. Well, they did all they could for them tried to give them as much comfort as was possible under the conditions - seeing that those who could eat were fed and given something to drink. Maybe - if this happens somewhere else - and one of our boys is one of the wounded, he, too, will be given care.

Abe Keichline leans against his doorway in the sun and watches the men returning up the hill. He knows his tavern will be busy for a while, and the events of the day will be discussed at length. He thinks of his sons, and wonders where they are and if they are safe.

What will all this mean? What will happen now with the British in Philadelphia?

Will it be with pride that these men tell their grandchildren in years to come "I was there the day the Liberty Bell passed through Bedminster."

Colonel Polk had told Abe that there were nearly 700 wagons in the train.

Was this a sign of things to come? Would there be a constant stream of people fleeing the British?

Abe glances at the sky, shakes his head, and turns to go back into the inn. The men have reached the encampment now, and the women are climbing back into their carts. They move off up the road to return home.

It is quiet now. You can hear the birds again. The field across from Keichline's lies rutted and disheveled. There are charred remains of fires scattered about. The road bed is rutted and will need repair before the rains.

And the Old One - the Bell of Liberty - has come and gone.
 

The above is factual as far as the Liberty Bell is concerned.
The people are real - they were here at that time.
The rest is imagination - or perhaps wishful thinking.
Copied (Jan 1993) From: "HISTORY OF BEDMINISTER"
Bucks County, Penna.
1976
Second Printing, Dec 1983
by
Bedminister Historical Society