The church bells of Ellicott City, both real and electronic, are tolling in competition these days.
The historic mill town's battle of the bells began early last month when the Howard County Historical Society started ringing once a day -- at noon -- the real bell atop its museum in the former First Presbyterian Church.
Across the town's narrow valley, St. Paul's Catholic Church rings its bell -- also a real one -- three times a day, at 6 a.m., noon and 6 p.m.
A stone's throw from the historical society, Emory United Methodist Church chimes in with its state-of-the-art system of bell-like electronic rods eight times a day and an audiotape of bells another five times a day -- for a total of 13 times a day from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
The cacophony has some nearby residents irritated and others becoming connoisseurs of the fine shades of bell ringing.
All three bells ring at noon, smothering the gentle rap of Charles B. Clark's grandfather clock, which sits in the living room of his hilltop house next to the historical society and across the street from the Methodist church.
But the 83-year-old finds it all delightful -- that is, when he's wearing his hearing aid.
As a teen-ager in the 1920s, he recalls, he used to pull the rope to ring the First Presbyterian bell, the one now atop the historical society.
"That was my job, and it was tough to learn how to do it, but if you did it right the sound was beautiful," Clark says. Now all of Ellicott City's bells are rung by automated systems.
"The First Presbyterian bell was always known for having the sweetest sound," he says. "Well, I suppose other congregations might argue that, but I remember the way they used to sound, sometimes joyous, sometimes slow and sad at funerals."
Some who live in Ellicott City can be a bit more savaging in their critique of the bells -- particularly of the Methodist church's high-tech system.
"I don't mind the historical society or St. Paul's. I think St. Paul's bell is beautiful. But Emory's are sour," says one resident who -- so sensitive is this matter -- prefers not to be named.
Some Ellicott City residents -- even if they don't always pause to listen -- set their watches by the bells. But despite the bells' proximity to Main Street, only faint traces of them can be heard amid the din of traffic and bustling shops.
In Bladen Yates' combined hardware and grocery stores on Main Street -- in the shadow of the historical society's 100-foot-tall steeple -- he chuckled at the notion that anyone might find the bells annoying.
"I think they're real nice," Yates says. "They remind you how many churches are around here."
As for the bell ringers themselves -- though they won't acknowledge it -- they appear to be deep into their competition.
"We have the only authentic church bell in the area. It's not like that machine business," says the Rev. Tom Donaghy, of St. Paul's on Saint Paul Street, in a potshot at Emory Methodist's electronics.
Indeed, St. Paul's bell is 158 years old, and it has rung regularly since then -- by hand until it was automated in 1974. That doesn't mean the other ringers are about to silence themselves.
The historical society's bell dates back to 1894 when First Presbyterian Church was going strong. But when the church moved out in 1959 -- and the historical society moved into the Court Avenue site shortly after -- the bell fell silent save for occasional times when it was rung by hand.
But earlier this year, the society spent $2,000 on an automated system to ring it daily. Society members, too, are proud that their bell is no mere imitation or Johnny-come-lately.
"The bell never really stopped ringing," says Paul Reitzel, a society board member.
The third source of chimes, Emory Methodist on Church Road, cannot claim such authenticity or history. Its edge is technology.
"We're state of the art," says Emory's pastor, Stephen Bryant. "Technology lets you have a much wider range."
The $10,000 system was installed in 1988 to mark the congregation's 150th anniversary. It plays taped tunes at 9 a.m., noon, 3 p.m., 6 p.m. and 9 p.m that sound somewhat like a harp and broadcasts bell chimes every other hour between 9 a.m. and p.m.
Emory bought the electronic system because it was the only economically feasible way to produce bell chimes without a bell tower, Bryant says.
Bryant -- like Reitzel and Donaghy -- insists there is no real bell competition in Ellicott City. But his parting words -- of his hope that St. Paul's will finally build its own bell tower with a real bell to celebrate its 200th anniversary in 2037 -- leaves more than a little doubt:
"I would love for us to have a tower and bell of our own."
Pub Date: 12/03/96