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Traverse City residents raise $10K to save clock, bell

Michael Walton
Associated Press

Traverse City — The 114-year-old bell that used to chime hourly from its perch high atop Grand Traverse County’s courthouse fell silent almost 10 years ago.

A handful of the courthouse’s neighbors want to hear the music again.

“Next to the American flag, there’s nothing more iconic to communities than their courthouse bell and clock,” Peter Doren told the Traverse City Record-Eagle

Doren, a local attorney, is one of eight people who comprise a committee dedicated to raising money to fix the courthouse’s bell and restore its four clock faces — all without the help of public funding. The Save the Bell Tower committee thus far raised nearly $10,000 in private donations, including nearly $5,000 from one anonymous Boardman neighborhood resident.

The group isn’t interested in creating an audible reminder of time’s unending march forward, though that’s an inevitable side-effect of their efforts to restore the bell and clock. Instead, the committee hopes to preserve a symbol of Grand Traverse County’s history, and times long past.

“We don’t really need the bell to know the time, but it adds to our community, to make it what it is,” committee member Gary Schilkey said. “You can’t put a price on that.”

The courthouse, built at the turn of the 20th century, served as a focal point for life in Traverse City for decades, said Carol Hale, a committee member and former Traverse City mayor.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, some in county government wanted to tear down the courthouse and replace it with a parking lot and new government facilities.

The courthouse’s future became a hot-button issue, until voters silenced the pro-demolition efforts by supporting a $1.7-million courthouse restoration referendum in 1975.

The referendum came after two separate citizens committees formed and drummed up support to save the courthouse.

One of the groups on May 3, 1975 — three days before the referendum — held a rally on the courthouse steps. That event also turned into a controversy.

That same day county officials decided to clean out the courthouse’s attic, said Hale, an active participant in the 1975 drive to save the courthouse.

Clean-up crews cleared out old boxes, boards, light fixtures and more in the quickest way possible: They opened an attic window and pitched the debris onto the ground below, the same spot where the rally was scheduled to take place.

But the cleanup move, in Hale’s estimation, generated a lot of publicity, and in the end helped the restoration campaign more than it hurt it.

“The TV cameras where there, thank God,” Hale said.

The group trying to restore the bell hopes to hold a new rededication ceremony on the courthouse’s lawn in May, after its restoration is complete. County officials have already ordered the necessary new bell parts.

The committee’s efforts will then focus on raising money to restore the four clock faces that cover each side of the courthouse tower.