Conn. bell manufacturer looks to ring in better times

(CBS News) EAST HAMPTON, Conn. -- We are approaching the season of bells -- sleigh bells and bells at the doors and the malls. But there was a time when those bells were made in America. Eventually there was only one factory left producing the sound of Christmas and now it's gone. However, the owner refuses to surrender to a silent night.

Beneath the melted metal and burned bricks, 45-year-old Matt Bevin searches for a familiar sound.

For 180 years, this was the site of his family business, Bevin Brothers. But in May, lightning destroyed his family's history.

"To know that my ancestors for six generations have stood on this exact spot and made bells in Bell Town USA, it means a lot to me," said Bevin.

East Hampton, Connecticut is called Bell Town USA because there were once more than 30 bell makers here. Bevin was the last one.

Bevin Brothers made the first bicycle bell in 1865. In 1923, Bevin's bells started calling children to the Good Humor Ice Cream truck. And one of its bells had a starring role in the Christmas classic, "It's a Wonderful Life."

Today, Matt Bevin is starting over. Fourteen of his 27 employees are back at work in this temporary factory trying to re-fill their biggest order -- 25,000 bells for the Salvation Army's kettle ringers.

"We are not just making widgets," he said. "We're not just even in the bell business. We're in the memory business."

Since the fire, hundreds of those memories have made their way to his mailbox in the form of handwritten letters, all from people who wanted to share their own bell story.

"I'm gonna start crying," said Bevin as he read out one of the letters. "'I'm glad your bells are still made in the United States of America.'"

Bevin vows to rebuild where this rubble now lies.

So what is it about bells that so moves people? "When you think about a bell, it's just two pieces of metal banging together," said Bevin. "But they symbolize something much greater. They symbolize dreams they symbolize joy, they symbolize memories, they symbolize hope for people."

A hope that the memories once created here will one day ring above the ashes.

  • Chip Reid

    Chip Reid is CBS News' national correspondent.