Monday, August 29, 2016

The history of the bells of St. Matthews United Church of Christ, Kunkletown

Perched high on a hill over the village of Kunkletown sits the St. Matthews United Church of Christ.  A visit to Kunkletown is enriched in this blogger's opinion if one happens to be in the vicinity at the top of the hour from 2pm to 10pm, because the carillon of St. Matthews, emanating from the church tower, is heard all round K-town at these times.  A tune is played, followed by the striking of the hour.  On a recent visit with a friend, as we sat whiling away a lazy sun-drenched and serene afternoon in the bucolic splendor of the lush Kunkletown hills and valleys, strikes at 2pm, 3pm and 4pm were all that reminded us on this day that time was not standing still.

During certain times of the year, such as Independence Day and Christmas, a special tune is played in recognition of the holiday.

View of St. Matthews ca. 1950

On the hill surrounding the church are headstones with family names that trace back from many living residents to ancestors who founded or settled in Kunkletown in days long since passed: Berger, Borger, Christman, Engler, Frable, Frantz, George, Gower, Greenzweig, Kleintop, Kunkle, Smale, Smith.  Life long resident Vernon Barlieb and a childhood acquaintance dug graves on this hill by hand in their youth - Vern recalls that it took two young men a day's work to dig one grave through the shale and rock.

Chimes were donated in memory of lifelong resident Verna Gower Barlieb

On a social visit to K-town in June, a resident made reference in passing that the St. Matthews chimes served to remind fellow residents Vernon and Leon Barlieb of their mother, Verna Barlieb.

Fascinated by this suggestion, the speaker was asked to explain.  Through further discussion and an interview with Vernon Barlieb, the following was gleaned.

Verna and Herman Barlieb

Verna Barlieb and her husband Herman raised 3 children in Kunkletown, Leon, Vernon and Gladys.  Verna was born in Kunkletown to Alvin and Rilla (Smith) Gower.  Verna and Herman ran Barlieb's Feed and Grain Service in Kunkletown for 22 years.  Prior to the Barlieb's ownership, Herman was a manager for the previous operation known as the Flory Milling Company, which commenced operations in January 1932.  The mill and store were located directly on the Chestnut Ridge Railway - as may be seen in the picture blow.

Typical product available at Barlieb's  Feed and Grain Service

Flory's - predecessor of Barlieb's Feed and Grain Service

Verna was a pianist for the church for 45 years and also a choir member, and she passed to eternal rest on November 30, 1988.  To honor Verna's memory and service, Mr. Barlieb and his three children donated the chimes to St. Matthews in 1989.  Sometime in the late 1990's, the chimes went silent due to lightning damage.  Insurance did not cover the entire cost of repair, and the chimes were deemed to not be worth repairing.  The Barlieb family, having lost patriarch Herman on September 14, 1995, again showed their generosity by donating the funds required to fully cover replacement and an upgrade of the original unit. 

St. Matthews carillon is an innovation of technology

This blogger has hands-on experience with carillons manufactured by Schulmerich Carillions in Quakertown PA (originally Sellersville PA).  Those chimes are electromechanical; tiny cast bronze rods, which when amplified create a sound almost indistinguishable from actual bells, which are far more heavy, expensive and bulky.

The St. Matthews carillon is manufactured by the Verdin Company, and is an innovation beyond miniaturization - it is totally electronic - there is only the control unit and an amplifier in the body of the church, and the loudspeakers are located in the church tower.

The next time you hear the chimes of St. Matthews bathing the village of Kunkletown in song, think of Herman ringing up orders at the Feed and Grain, and Verna playing for Sunday School each weekend.  It doesn't take much imagination to see her at the piano, serving her church and community.