This is the unlikely story of how one small French town came to have its very own Liberty Bell
On a picturesque hillside, high in the French Alps, Edouard de Reydet carefully follows a centuries-old formula. With the precision of a scientist and the artistry of a chef, he combines local earth, ground to a fine powder (not just any dirt will do), egg whites and just the right amount of horse manure.
Things are just starting to get back to normal in Annecy-le-Vieux.
The price of liberty
Six years prior, France was under Nazi occupation. Thousands of German troops were stationed in the area. The SS tortured and killed 232 patriots and resistants in an old school building just nine miles from where de Reydet is working.
Annecy-le-Vieux sits within the Haute-Savoie department on the eastern edge of France, bordering both Italy and Switzerland. Settlement in this high mountain region, dotted with lakes and forests, dates back to Roman times, though it only became part of France when it was annexed from Sardinia in 1860.
Best known for sporting events, the area hosted the 1924 and 1992 Winter Olympics. Its winding mountain roads have been an integral part of the Tour-de-France for the last 80 years.
Confusing tourists for a century, Annecy-le-Vieux, which translates to Annecy-the-Old, is not to be confused with the larger town of Annecy, on the other side of Lake Annecy, or with Old Annecy, which is what the old part of regular Annecy is called. Old Annecy is true to its name, having survived three Allied bombings of the town.
The mud man
On this warm day in the spring of 1950, the 65-year old expert mud maker takes a seat in the grass. It’s lunchtime at the Paccard Bell Foundry. de Reydet plays a critical role here — he made the mud that made the model that made the mold that will soon produce 57 shiny new Liberty Bell replicas. He sits back and digs into his packed lunch of bread and wine.
He’s joined by the man whose name has been on the building for the last 154 years. Sporting his trademark French beret — he wears it every waking hour — Henri Paccard, along with his brother Alfred, are the sixth generation in an unbroken father-to-son line to run the family business. Bell making is in his blood. Arguably the world’s foremost bellfounder, Paccard can step in and do the job of any of his 65 employees if needed.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and so it was in 1796. The small commune of Quintal, near Annecy, needed both a bell and a priest, the former having been destroyed during the French Revolution. When Quintal asked their bishop to send a priest, he responded with an ultimatum, “You will have a priest when you have a bell at your belfry.”
In Medieval and Renaissance times, itinerant bell makers, called saintiers, would roll into town, dig a hole in front of the church, cast a bell in the hole, hoist the bell up the steeple and move on to the next town.
Antione Paccard, the 25-year-old mayor of Quintal, brought in one such itinerant saintier, Jean-Baptiste Pitton, from Geneva. The bell maker needed an assistant. Antoine, being a master smith, fit the bill. In 1971, sixth generation bell maker Pierre Paccard would recount, “In those days it was easier to hire a founder than to transport bells.” This is how the Paccard Bell Foundry came to be in this small alpine town.
With all his bell-making knowledge, some things still remain a mystery. When asked about his colleague’s concoction, Henri Paccard sheds little light. “Why egg whites? I don’t know. But you can’t make bell’s without them.” As for the less savory ingredient, Paccard continues, “Bell makers for years have been trying to find a substitute for horse manure, but they haven’t found it yet.”
It’s a good time to be in the bell business, and the Paccard Bell Foundry has made bells, or made do, since 1796. During World War I, bereft of heavy metal, the foundry got by making shrapnel for the war effort. During occupation in World War II they produced small aluminum items of no military utility.
While the foundry managed to carry on, it was far from business as usual during the occupation. 21 years from now, with perhaps a bit of the romanticism that comes with the passage of time, Alfred’s son Pierre will recall how his father handled occupation. Returning home from school one day, Pierre’s mother informed him nonchalantly, “The Germans were here today. Your father wore his dancing shoes.” Whatever the strategy, it worked. The Germans never returned.
The Department that liberated itself
As the balance of the Second World War started to shift, so too did the fate of Haute-Savoie.
In the summer of 1944 allied forces had landed at Normandy and were steadily gaining ground throughout France. Likewise, the French Resistance — known here as the Maquis — was growing in strength and confidence. While the Allies doubted the Maquis could win their own battles, the Maquis, a ragtag group of students, aristocrats, priests, liberals, anarchists and communists would get a chance to prove their mettle reclaiming their remote mountain homeland.
On August 11, 1944, an effort was launched to isolate the Nazis in Annecy by cutting off all roads into Haute-Savoie, isolating the German garrisons in the area and preventing the arrival of reinforcements from Lyon or Grenoble.
The next day saw a bloody battle where 17,000 Maquis fighters destroyed 300 enemy vehicles and took control of the roads into Annecy. The remaining German troops, now isolated, were ordered to fight to the last man. About 100 managed to escape across mountainous terrain to rejoin their comrades.
On August 18, all Maquis forces gathered at Annecy. The following day, German officers signed papers of unconditional surrender at the Hotel Splendid. 1,200 enemy soldiers were taken prisoner. The German POWs would later be filmed clearing stones from the Annecy airfield and posing for the cameras as American flyers, recently freed from capture in Switzerland, were repatriated on C47s to rejoin the war effort.
On August 20, the maquisards marched triumphantly through town to the raucous applause of their fellow Haute-Savoiens.
In November, General de Gaulle visited Annecy to honor the department that liberated itself.
With spring in bloom and a new decade dawning, the world is in rebuilding mode. And the world needs bells.
A bell’s rightful place is a lofty one, occupying the highest space of the tallest buildings. As cities and town were leveled across Europe, not many tall buildings, and not many bells, survived.
Bells lead a doubly perilous life during wartime. They’re made of copper and tin which can be melted down and turned into arms and ammunition. And they’re hard to hide.
While France was able to negotiate the preservation of their bells by instead surrendering bronze statuary, much of the rest of the continent was not so fortunate. By the end of WWII, 175,000 bells cast between the twelfth and twentieth centuries had been seized by the Nazis. They melted down 150,000 of them.
In August 1945, Allied Forces discovered thousands of looted bells on a dock in Hamburg. This collection of ancient and modern European bells all in one place documented a monumental cultural crime, but also provided an unprecedented opportunity to catalog and acoustically test these bells before being returned to their home countries.
The renaissance of bellfounding in Europe had begun.
It’s business as usual at the Paccard Bell Foundry, save for two guests from across the Atlantic, and one big order.
The two American guests are Andrew J. Dunn, director of the department of labor relations for the United States Treasury and reporter Carter L. Davidson. Paccard has just been selected by the Treasury to cast full-size functional replicas of the Liberty Bell which will tour the states and territories as promotional tools for a Savings Bond drive starting on May 15, 1950.
This is a different kind of assignment for Davidson. As chief of the Associated Press bureau in Palestine, Davidson filed battlefield reports covering the wars of 1947 and 1948. Newspapers around the world relayed his story of meeting a 9-year-old Jewish boy who was whistling a Sinatra tune one minute, shelled by Arab mortars the next, and dead shortly thereafter. He also shared his first-hand account of British troops finding the lifeless bodies of two of their Seargents, executed by a Jewish extremist group and hanged in twin eucalyptus trees. As the troops were cutting down the bodies, a boobie trap exploded, blasting the bodies to bits, injuring one soldier and knocking Davidson and AP photographer James Pringle to the ground, destroying his camera.
The heart and the ear
Davidson captures the story of one of Paccard’s most highly-skilled craftsmen. 35-year-old Maurice Collomb is a tuner. Collomb’s father and grandfathers (yes, both grandfathers) were tuners. While there is certainly an art to mud making and mold making and molten metal pouring, the tuning stage is where making a bell really starts to look like art — even to the casual observer. The bell is placed upside down on a slowly-rotating turntable. As it revolves, Collomb uses a tiny knife to shave off metal from inside the bell.
From the flaring edge to the top, bells are tuned to six different tones. A little rubber hammer in one hand, a tuning fork in the other, Collomb shaves and rings and listens and repeats until the bell strikes the perfect tone. The bell does not earn the Paccard name until the sound completely satisfies both the heart and the ear. He’s allowed to be off by up to one-sixty-fourth of an octave, a margin of error so small, the end result is practically perfect.
A tall order
Collomb and the other craftsmen at Paccard are doing their part to rebuild Europe, one bell at a time. But demand far outweighs supply. It would take a dozen foundries the size of Paccard 20 years to replace the bells lost in the war.
As one of the oldest and most highly-regarded foundries in Europe, Paccard has been called on to replace some of the most important bells. They are booked solid for the next two years.
Then the Americans called.
While brainstorming ways to promote a $650 million savings bond drive, the U.S. Treasury has a big idea. They’ll call the drive “Save for your Independence” and commission full-size functional Liberty Bells to tour each state and territory to drum up support. Independence is freedom, and freedom doesn’t knock politely on your door to ask for money. Freedom rings. From every mountainside. And as every American knows, freedom isn’t free. Buy a bond, ring the Liberty Bell. You don’t have to passively let freedom ring. You can actively do it yourself. Simple. Patriotic. Brilliant.
There is nothing that challenges a big idea more than a tight deadline, and this idea was as short on time as it was long on ambition. A request for proposal went out early in 1950 for at least 53 full-size bronze Liberty Bell replicas, to be completed in time to tour their respective regions by May 15. No American foundries could meet the deadline, and with the movement to replace historic bells across Europe, it’s hard to believe there were many other foundries that could take on the job.
Despite the two-year backlog, perhaps feeling indebted to their American allies, or perhaps embracing the business philosophy that when it rains, it pours, Paccard bid on the job, promising on-time delivery.
When the foundry receives the call at 5 pm Washington DC time, midnight Annecy time, to let them know they won the contract, more than a few champagne corks are popped and the celebration carries on long into the morning. Then it’s time to get to work.
America’s foremost bellmaker, Princeton’s own Arthur L. Bigelow, is brought in to take precise measurements of the original Liberty Bell to send to Annecy. Collomb, de Reydet, the Paccard brothers and the rest of the team get to work. Andrew Dunn is sent to make sure production moves quickly. His boss, Treasury Secretary John W. Snyder, will visit to observe the pouring of the molten metal that will become his star marketing tools.
Paccard not only met their deadline, they exceeded it. Beyond the 53 replicas made to tour the states and territories, they cast 4 additional, serial-numbered bells. As a thank you for their hustle, the Treasury gifted a bell to the city of Annecy. The only replica to do full-time duty as a bell, France’s Liberty Bell tells the time and calls residents to worship at the Basilique SaintJoseph-des-Fins in Annecy. The first image on this page shows that bell, well-used, and well-loved by the local birds. In return, another bell was presented as a gift from the city of Annecy to the city of Independence Missourri, the hometown of US president Harry Truman.
the Basilique Saint Joseph-des-Fins in Annecy, home of the Liberty Bell replica
The Treasury kept another bell for themselves, on display in the now off-limits area between the White House and the Treasury Building. The Treasury bell is not the bell that toured and was displayed in Washington DC until it went missing in 1981, guaranteeing my quest to see all of the bells won’t be complete until it’s found. Another bell was given to Japan and can be seen in Hibiya Park, Chiyoda City, Tokyo. Curiously, the Tokyo bell is mentioned only on the plaque that accompanies the Annecy bell and not on any plaques in the states and territories.
Brand new Liberty Bells in the Paccard Bell Foundry
La Cloche de Liberte
de Reydet savors the last of his bread and wine and returns to the task of mud making. Davidson moves on to interview another craftsman. The Paccard brothers check in with their team to make sure the foundry’s other thousand-plus orders aren’t being neglected. Treasury man Dunn lingers. Whether or not anyone present this day at Paccard knows it, this is the apex of the renaissance of bell making.
A plaque commemorating the installation of the bell on December 23, 1951
Pour le habitants
On September 10, 1950, Treasury Secretary John W. Snyder again visits Annecy, this time to present the Liberty Bell to the people of Annecy, as a thank you and a reminder of the common bond uniting the two countries. During the ceremony, he proclaims, “It is the hope of the United States that you will look on this bell as a constant reminder of our common faith in democracy. It is intended also to recognize anew a great bond which exists between the peoples of France and the United States — their mutual devotion to the cause of human freedom.”
Members of the local Communist party, perhaps the same people who fought with the Maquis to drive out the Nazis, boycotted the ceremony.
The official Annecy Liberty Bell plaque
The plaque reads:
This bell is one of 57 bells that were made in Annecy during the spring and summer of the year 1950. Each of them is an exact reproduction of the Liberty Bell which resounded to proclaim in 1776 the Independence of American in Philadelphia (State of Pennsylvania), and which the American people have since considered as a symbol of these memorable days.
These bells have been used since May 15 until July 4, 1950, as an emblem for the campaign of the American Treasury. These bells will be permanently exhibited in each state of the United States and the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. One of these bells was donated to Japan. The inhabitants of Annecy donated a bell to the inhabitants of the city of Independence (State of Missouri), home of the United States President, Mr. Harry S. Truman.
The Government of America has made the necessary arrangements to give this bell to the city of Annecy in recognition of the technical skill and craftsmanship of its workers and to remind the fact that freedom is a common heritage of France and the United States.
The American people are hoping, when the inhabitants of Annecy and all over France will look and hear this bell, that they will remember the times when the two nations fought side by side to defend this heritage which made both grand.
A legacy of liberty
The Paccard Bell Foundry did its part to replace the great bells lost in the war and the company is still going strong. They have managed to weather the precipitous decline in demand for church bells, which in 2017 claimed London’s historic Whitechapel Bell Foundry, where the original Liberty Bell was originally cast.
The foundry continues to produce Liberty Bell replicas, identical to the first 57, minus the serial numbers. The Walt Disney World Liberty Bell, cast in 1989, was their 300th.
A brand new Liberty Bell replica at the Paccard Bell foundry
In 1998 they cast the World Peace Bell. The 33-ton Newport Kentucky giant would hold the title as the world’s largest free-swinging bell for six years. Guided tours cost one dollar.
Just as they survived shortages of metal and occupation during the first half of the century, Paccard continued to adapt to changing tastes and market demands following their post-war boom. In the 1970s they started producing motors and timing devices to accompany their carillons and clocks.
Embracing tourism as part of their business model, the Paccard Museum opened in 1984. In 1989 the foundry moved to its current location in nearby Sevrier. In 2017 the museum was completely renovated, offering interactive displays telling the 4,000-year history of bell making. The museum is open every day, and if you come on a Thursday, you might get to see bells being cast.
In 2006 Paccard opened two new business lines: Ars Sonora (Tone Art), designed for town squares and corporate centers, combines bells and monumental sculpture, and Campanuna, an online store selling smaller bells for homes and schools, including miniature Liberty Bells
On new year’s day, 2017, Annecy-le-Vieux was officially made part of Annecy.
the Paccard Bell Foundry in Sevrier, 2017
Paccard: the next generation
Today, the foundry is run by seventh-generation brothers Philippe and Cyrill Paccard. There is a very good chance the foundry will be passed along to the eighth generation. 19-year-old eldest son Antoine was reported to be weighing his options between the priesthood and bell making. If he chooses the collar, no worries — he has three younger brothers.
April 1950: Fifty-seven Liberty Bell replicas are lined up neatly in two rows at the Paccard Bell Foundry. Next, they’ll take a 263-mile trek south through winding roads to the port of Marseille. There, the first 13 bells will be loaded onto the S.S. Excalibur to sail across the Atlantic, arriving at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on April 21. They’ll then be mounted on the backs of flatbed Fords and driven to their respective states where they will get to work fundraising.
The French craftsmen take a moment to admire their handiwork as they bid adieu to their American guests. No doubt they’re happy to get back to the task of replacing the great bells of Europe, happy to complete the surprise rush order from the American government, and happy to be able to continue the work they and their families have done here for the last 154 years.
Davidson files his story with the Associated Press. Whether or not the story is newsworthy, he’s happy not to have been shot at. Next month the story will be read in papers from coast to coast as the bond drive kicks off. Ads for the drive, donated by the newspaper publishers, will run next to the article.
Andrew J. Dunn, the man the Treasury sent to France to assure on-time completion of the Liberty Bells, has done just that. He’s now headed back to the states, back to the job of directing Treasury personnel.
But as it’s time to depart, he might just have other ideas. Leaning over to Davidson, with a uniquely American bravado he confides, “I’ve gotten so interested in these bells. I think I could do most of the work on one of them. Everything, that is, except tune them—and mix that mud.”
Resources: Thanks to Josh Gibson, the man searching for DC’s missing Liberty Bell, who provided stories and photos from his personal trip to Annecy (I have yet to visit). Thanks to Stan Christoph, president of Christoph Paccard Bell Foundry, where you can buy your very own Liberty Bell replica. I’m particularly grateful for the fine research and fascinating reporting of both Carter L. Davidson, who visited in 1950 and Grace Wing Bohne, who visited in 1971.