Ringing the bells of heaven

Volunteers haul the bell toward the church steeple.

OKANOGAN — On a brisk fall day in 1949, the beautiful Heisler 102 narrow gauge locomotive engine lay tilted on its side atop a scrap heap in Omak, awaiting her final stop in a lifetime of service.

Con Degroote, an engineer on the 102 and historical photographer responsible for chronicling one of the largest lumber operations in the Pacific Northwest, Biles-Coleman Lumber Co., was beckoned to her side.

One can only imagine this unseen conversation between Con and the Heisler. “Take my bell and preserve it, for someday it will be used to summon life’s travelers.”

And with that instinctive notion, the well-worn hands of a lumbering logger removed the engine’s sounding bell and housing, rescuing it from ultimate destruction.

The bell and her housing were secured, cared for and preserved by members of Con’s family from the time the Heisler 102 was scrapped in June of 1949 until just recently. In June 2018, exactly 69 years (possibly to the day) another local legend providentially entered into the path of the Heisler 102 bell, as a catalyst to connect it with its next station of duty.

Buzz and Jean Berney, longtime Conconully cattle ranchers, were in the Omak-Okanogan community on a warm Saturday morning perusing various garage sales and exchanging stories with the hosts of each sale. At this time, Teri and Oscar Michels were chatting with Buzz about the items in their sale, when Buzz asked Oscar if he had anything that wasn’t on display in the front yard.

Buzz was recalling a recent conversation he’d had with the pastor of Faith Missionary Baptist Church in Okanogan, organized Nov. 4, 1951, about the congregation’s desire to find a bell to hang in the empty steeple of their 106-year-old church building at South Fourth Avenue and Tyee Street. The building was purchased in 1974 from the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane.

Having learned of Buzz’s legendary bell-casting craftsmanship, pastor James Craddock sought him out for a discussion about obtaining a bell. On a warm and windy summer afternoon, he and a member of his congregation, David Clark, knocked on the front door of the Berney Ranch house, unknowingly interrupting Buzz’s lunch with his family.

Without hesitation, Buzz arose from the table, excused himself and proceeded to accommodate his guests for the next two hours with intriguing conversation and a tour of the ranch, ending with a demonstration of how his Swedish history inspired him to become a prolific designer and caster of his own line of bells.

You may know Buzz from his role in the infamous Conconully street show of an Old West gunfight, or you may be the recipient of one of the 500-plus bells he’s produced and shipped all around the world. Buzz is the only bell maker who stamps the inside of each bell with his own authentic signature, a proud token of his work for which he has never once charged anyone a single dime.

In response to Buzz’s question, yard sale host Oscar smiled and said, “Well, yes I do have this old bell in the backyard that was procured by Teri’s uncle, Con DeGroote, but it weighs over 90 pounds and is too heavy to bring out here. If you’d like to see it, I can take you back.”

Within a few minutes of seeing the bell, Buzz was on the phone calling Mike and Beverly Stover, longtime members of the church, to tell them of his find and inviting them to meet Teri and Oscar to view the bell.

On June 23, Mike, Beverly, Craddock, Buzz, Jean, Oscar and Teri all met to discuss the possibility of selling the bell to the church.

After viewing the bell, ringing it and discussing the transaction, Craddock realized the bell before them was the very bell they had prayed for, but due to the demand of other budgetary obligations, he was not in a position to pay the asking price.

This is when Buzz did what only Buzz would do. He stepped up with cash and paid for the bell, telling Craddock the bell was now securely in his possession and could be purchased from him whenever we were able to raise the money through the church.

The next Sunday, church members donated enough money to purchase the bell from Buzz, who gave us a nice discount as well.

The bell was brought to the church and on the first Sunday of July. The oldest member of the church, 94-year-old Juanita Robbins of Omak, rang the bell during a ceremony in which Buzz and Jean presented it to the congregation. Robbins’ husband was Cecil Robbins, a Cat operator in the same lumber industry in which Mike Stover felled trees and Con DeGroote worked.

During the presentation, Buzz told the story of how the bell found its way into his world shortly after the need was brought to his attention.

He spoke of how it was procured and how so many related people were connected to it. He closed with the exclamation that something which seemed virtually impossible at the outset was miraculously manifested, apparently guided by an unseen hand.

After shining the bell and strategizing how to raise it to the top of the very steep roof of the church, Daniel Murrah and Rich Lang led members of the church to execute the installation without flaw.

Over the next couple weeks, a rope and pulley system were fabricated inside of the church and now each Sunday morning at 11 a.m., services are initiated by having a member or guest stand in front of the congregation and ring the bell seven times to begin the service.

This past Veterans Day, our bell proved instrumental in the celebration of the 100-year anniversary of the armistice signing that ended World War I. We participated in ringing the “Bells of Peace” 21 times at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11.

Members of Faith Missionary Baptist Church refer to this new tradition as “ringing the bells of heaven.”

The clanging of a bell that once served the community with prosperity and purpose will now ring to invite them to consider their relationship with God and testify to the power of what can be accomplished through faith.

James Craddock is pastor of Faith Missionary Baptist Church in Okanogan.

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