Matt Bevin doesn’t hang his hat in East Hampton, but he does spend a lot of time in town.
On Sunday he was back, albeit unexpectedly.
“It’s a heavy day. It truly is a heavy day,” the owner of Bevin Bros. Manufacturing said. “A lot of dreams gone up literally and figuratively in smoke. A lot of lives, a lot of threads that passed through this little place. It’s an invisible part of this town in many ways, but it touches a lot of lives. A lot of employees, a lot of other little companies that buy things from us, sell things to us.”
A the Bevin Bell Company early Sunday morning, leaving behind smoldering ash and debris while a brick skeleton served as a sad reminder of what once stood.
Bevin was at his home in Louisville, Ky., when he found out the news around midnight.
“Sad day. A lot of history,” he said.
The company had been in business since 1832, making cowbells to sleigh bells and many others in between. It was the last bell factory in North America.
“This was a little nerve center for a lot of lives,” Bevin said. “A lot of lives have been thrown into chaos.”
“I’m grateful nobody was hurt,” he said. “The employees are safe. The firefighters, the responders, and there were plenty of them who walked into a messy situation, I’m truly grateful to God they are fine. This is stuff.”
Stuff, though, that is irreplaceable.
“I had photos of my ancestors that go back to the founding of this company hanging on the walls in there. Gone,” Bevin said. “Things that are literally irreplaceable, at any price. Bevins have been making bells on this little spot of Connecticut for 180 years. It’s gone.”
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While Bevin talked with the burned-out factory behind him, people came up to express their sadness in his loss and to wish him well. The news of the fire shocked residents. The bell factory had been a landmark in town and stood for an era deeply rooted in East Hampton history. Known as Belltown, East Hampton has been home to more than 30 bell manufacturers. Slowly they shut down until the only one left was the Bevin Bell Company.
As devastating as the historical significance of the loss, and as Bevin tried to come to grips with what this means for him, his mind never strayed far from his employees, who suddenly find themselves without a job.
“It’s been kept going as a labor of love as much as anything, because there’s a lot of people who work here who need jobs, who are screwed without this place. And that’s a sad thing,” he said. “That breaks my heart.”
It was too soon for Bevin to know if he would rebuild.
“I love the idea of that, but you could be Don Quixotic and say, ‘Oh, I’m going to go fight those windmills,’ and it’s easy to say that, but I’m a realist. I’m a business person, said Bevin, the sixth in a line of Bevins to run the company. “I make a living in the business world.”
Bevin left open the possibility, but he was blunt, too. There isn’t money in making bells in North America.
“Truth be told, the reason it’s the only bell company left in North America is because you can’t make money making bells in North America,” he said. “That’s why they’re made in China and India. The only reason we still could is because we were already here. The equipment was already here. The building was already here. The land was already owned, it was already paid for. The tooling was already here, the presses … and now they’re gone. The cost of bringing that infrastructure back, wouldn’t even in 50 years begin to justify doing that to make bells. That’s the tragedy in this. That said, this is Belltown. If I’m going to make bells, I’m going to make bells in Belltown. I don’t know if I will or not, but if I can I will. I have many shortcomings, but one of them isn’t resolve.”
Only 15 hours into the fire and its aftermath, it might have been too soon for Bevin to know what the future would hold, but he did know one thing.
“I have a catastrophic mess in front of me right now. That much I know,” he said.