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Community Roots: Selections from the Local Legacies Project
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Willie and Bill Simmons at the Courthouse Bell in 1966
Willie and Bill Simmons at the Courthouse Bell in 1966. Photo courtesy Historic Fincastle, Inc.

Bells of Historic Fincastle

Each year the New Year's Eve ringing of the bells in the town of Fincastle is a synchronized and solemn requiem to end the old year and a joyous tolling to celebrate the beginning of the new year. The Botetourt County Court House and four churches join in a ritual that was begun so long ago that no one knows exactly when it started. Not just anyone rings the bells; that duty and honor has been performed by the same families for generations.

On December 31, 1999, promptly at 11:45 p.m., Willie Simmons, the third generation of his family to lead the ceremony, signaled with a flashing light to the persons in the belfry to begin. The court house bell rings first, which is followed by the Presbyterian Church bell, where illness broke the string of three generations of McDonells and a new tradition has started for bell tolling. The Baptist Church bell is next with the third generation of Boltons doing the honor. Next rings the Methodist Church bell where brothers Kerry and Bill Campbell are the second generation in charge; and on to the Episcopal Church were another third generation family, the Waids, pull the rope for the traditional one peal of the bell. This sequence of ringing lasts for 15 minutes, then the courthouse bell rings 12 times, marking midnight. A second generation of the Kessler family plays taps, and the year is rung in. Simmons follows with three shots from his shotgun to signal the beginning of the ringing of all the bells together for ten minutes to celebrate the new year.

"The ceremony is simple: the bells toll for the old year, then strike midnight; taps are played, and the new year is struck. Then the shotgun blasts in the new year and the bells peal and peal." (From The Roanoke Times, 1978)

Fincastle, which was incorporated as a town in 1772, was settled by German, Scotch-Irish and English immigrants. The town has always been the seat of Botetourt County. The original Botetourt Country Court House was built in 1845; after a fire it was rebuilt to the original Thomas Jefferson design. A walking tour through historic Fincastle reveals wrought iron fences, flagstone walks, gravestones dating back to 1795, handsome cupolas on the courthouse and churches, and steeples. Three antebellum and two late 19th century churches still serve their congregations.

Documentation includes photographs, newspaper clippings, brochures, and a Botetourt Country catalog.

Originally submitted by: Bob Goodlatte, Representative (6th District).

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The Local Legacies project provides a "snapshot" of American Culture as it was expressed in spring of 2000. Consequently, it is not being updated with new or revised information with the exception of "Related Website" links.

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