The Bell Tower Community Foundation believes this is the year enough money can be raised to make Jefferson’s iconic tower a 47-bell carillon.

Push on to make Bell Tower a true carillon

Renewed effort part of tower’s 50th anniversary this fall


After 30 years, this is the year the Bell Tower Community Foundation gets over the hump and makes the Mahanay Memorial Carillon Tower a true carillon.

But when you’re talking about adding more than a dozen bells to the 168-foot tower, each to be cast in the Netherlands, the project price tag has been only slightly less scary than the sight of Quasimodo on a dark night.

Last week’s $61,500 grant to the foundation from the Grow Greene County Gaming Corp. by way of new casino revenue will hopefully give the foundation the momentum it needs to once and for all “complete the legacy,” as Bell Tower board president Carole Custer puts it.

“The time is now,” Custer said.

On the back of last week’s Grow Greene grant, the Bell Tower Foundation has officially kicked off what it hopes will be a final fundraiser — with a target date for its $400,000 goal of Oct. 16, the tower’s 50th anniversary.

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.

Less than a week later, Dean and Lois McAtee, of Jefferson, committed to buy an A-sharp, Custer said.

The foundation began the year with a $10,000 gift from Ellie Brown on behalf of Velma Radebaugh.

“It’s the momentum of the 50th anniversary that makes this possible,” Custer said.

“We’re going to get this done,” she added.

It’s been a long time coming.

Dedicated Oct. 16, 1966, the Mahanay Memorial Carillon Tower has become Greene County’s single-most identifiable landmark, but its 14 bells don’t qualify it as a carillon.

A carillon must have at least 23 bells.

What we have, in the eyes of a carillonneur, is a chime.

“It’s had its ups and downs for reputation,” Custer said of the Bell Tower.

What spurred the community to action, according to Custer, was when Iowa State University’s carillonneur refused to come play it.

“He wouldn’t come because it wasn’t a real carillon,” Custer said. “That was a major a-ha moment.”

The Bell Tower Community Foundation was established in 1986 as a way to accept donations to improve the tower.

The fruits of an early push to make the tower a 47-bell carillon have been on display inside the Greene County courthouse for a generation now, where 15 already cast bells sit awaiting installation in a glass case.

A more aggressive approach with the tower’s 50th anniversary looming also has led the foundation to apply for a Community Attraction and Tourism, or CAT, grant from Vision Iowa.

The application is due Friday.

“It’s tough to tell citizens how much better it will be,” Custer said.

The existing support structure will hold all 47 bells, she said.

But currently, the tower doesn’t have enough bells to play music. What residents have heard for generations is prerecorded bell music blasted through speakers.

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

“We’ve had so many people comment how richer the Westminster bells sound,” Custer said.

A Mahanay Memorial Carillon Tower with 47 bells hanging from it would make it only the fourth carillon in Iowa, behind Iowa State’s famous, 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.

But even ISU’s revered carillon wasn’t born a true carillon, either.

It took 31 years after the campanile was built in 1898 for it to gain 26 bells and a playing console. The time between its original construction and the addition of its 50th bell actually spans 69 years.

The Mahanay Bell Tower’s modern design would generate buzz for Jefferson’s carillon, Custer said, as visitors would be able to see the exposed bells ringing.

“At Iowa State,” she said, “you can’t actually see the bells play.”

To inquire about purchasing a bell — which can be inscribed with a family name at no extra cost — contact Custer at 515-370-0009.

Donations can be sent to the Bell Tower Community Foundation, c/o Greene County Chamber and Development, 220 N. Chestnut St., Jefferson, IA 50129.

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