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Connecticut's 'Belltown' welcomes back factory destroyed by lightning

| Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, 5:30 p.m.

EAST HAMPTON, Conn. — The 180-year-old New England company that made the little bell that rings every time an angel gets its wings in the Christmas classic “It's a Wonderful Life” has resumed production in time for the holidays, four months after its 19th-century factory burned down.

Over the past few weeks, employees working at a temporary factory set up in a rented warehouse across the street from Bevin Bros. Manufacturing Co. began filling customer orders, including the annual one from the Salvation Army for the steel and brass bells it uses during its kettle drives.

The resumption of bellmaking, announced with fanfare on Wednesday by Matthew Bevin, the sixth-generation owner of Bevin Bros., was welcomed by many in Belltown USA, as this town of 13,000 people 20 miles from Hartford has long called itself. Bevin Bros. is the last bell manufacturer in a town that had more than 30 of them generations ago.

Eric Fuller, an assistant manager at a hardware store, said it would be hard to imagine an end to the company in a town where even the public school mascot is a bell-ringer. Bells appear on the town seal and on street and welcome-to-East Hampton signs.

“It's the town's identity,” he said. “It's important for the long-time residents.” Matthew Bevin, a 45-year-old businessman who fondly recalls putting “tongues” on bells as a child and now lives in Louisville, Ky., has vowed to build a new factory to replace the one destroyed by fire during a lightning storm May 27.

He said he is doing it for the employees and the town, and was inspired by his ancestors, who managed to keep the company afloat through technological change, the Depression and cheap overseas competition.

“We're fortunately wired not to quit,” he said.

Some employees wiped away tears as they listened to Bevin's announcement.

Austin Gardner, 72, a tool-and-die maker who has worked at the factory for 20 years, said the employees are extremely loyal and happy to get called back. So far, 14 of the 27 employees are back on the job, he said.

“They're grateful to have a job, especially in this economy,” Gardner said. He added: “I don't think anybody else would have done what Matt's doing. There's not a whole lot of money to be made in this business.”

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