Bell Tower to join elite ranks of carillons

Enough money to finish tower after 50 years


The Mahanay Memorial Carillon Tower will become only the fourth carillon in Iowa with Wednesday’s award of a state grant worth $87,102.

The news by the Vision Iowa board came just two days before the start of the 37th annual Bell Tower Festival and about 30 years after organized efforts first got underway to turn the 168-foot tower into a 47-bell, four-octave carillon.

If the Bell Tower could have immediately rung out in song Wednesday afternoon, it would have — except there aren’t enough bells.

“By Bell Tower Festival next year, by gum, it’ll be done,” said Carole Custer, president of the Bell Tower Community Foundation.

Mid-October officially marks the tower’s 50th anniversary, only the Mahanay Memorial Carillon Tower, as it’s formally known, has never qualified as a carillon.

Its 14 bells make it a chime — capable of ringing but not playing music.

Those show tunes you hear daily? Prerecorded bell music, blasted through speakers.

A carillon must have at least 23 bells.

“The planets just needed to line up,” Custer said.

Wednesday’s Community Attraction and Tourism (CAT) grant from the Iowa Economic Development Authority puts fundraising for the $440,905 expansion just slightly over the top.

The Bell Tower Foundation applied for a CAT grant in April, but only got to make its case for funding in person to the Vision Iowa board on Wednesday in Emmetsburg — yes, the same day the decision was made.

“Usually,” Custer said, “they don’t approve a grant application on the same day you make the pitch.”

The state funded the project for the full amount requested.

Other sources of money for the project, according to Custer, include $189,353 from the Bell Tower Foundation itself; $61,500 in casino revenue awarded in April from the Grow Greene County Gaming Corp.; $75,000 from Greene County; and $11,000 from the city of Jefferson, in addition to fundraising.

“People have stepped up,” she said.

Grow Greene’s grant will purchase the two largest, and most expensive, bells still needed to create a four-octave carillon — a G-sharp and a C-sharp.

The foundation could go ahead and green-light the project as soon as possible, but its cost would drain the organization of funds, according to Custer.

“We still have bells that can be purchased,” she said. “There are naming opportunities for the remaining bells.”

Bells can be inscribed with a family name at no extra cost, she said, but the new bells will take six months to be cast, so the deadline is drawing near.

The 15 already cast bells that have sat for a generation in a glass case at the Greene County courthouse will at long last be installed.

The project will greatly alter a skyline that’s largely gone unchanged since the tower’s dedication on Oct. 16, 1966.

The top of the tower will be modified to accommodate additional bells.

Closer to the ground, a new lobby entrance will be constructed.

A Mahanay Memorial Carillon Tower with 47 bells hanging from it will make it only the fourth carillon in the state, behind Iowa State University’s 50-bell carillon, a 47-bell carillon at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls and a 25-bell carillon at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in Des Moines.

What initially spurred the community to action back in 1986, according to Custer, was when Iowa State’s carillonneur refused to come play Jefferson’s Bell Tower.

It wasn’t, he sneered, a real carillon.

Only the Westminster chime uses the real bells, and even they didn’t work right until recently, when new strikers were installed.

However, the Bell Tower Foundation hasn’t been as aggressive in raising money as it could have been.

“The foundation has always wanted to take a backseat to other fundraising in the community,” Custer said.

It goes without saying that Wednesday’s announcement is a game changer for the Mahanay Bell Tower.

“It will be the only carillon in the state that has 47 bells exposed,” Custer said. “People can see the bells being struck. They’ll be able to see action.

“That’s what makes it exciting from a tourism standpoint.”

Contact Us

Jefferson Bee & Herald
Address: 200 N. Wilson St.
Jefferson, IA 50129

Phone:(515) 386-4161