Let the Bells Ring
It must've been bells you heard at the windy junction of E. William and Maynard Streets during the Ann Arbor Art Fair. For the last 32 years at fair time, Harmony Hollow Bell Works owner Bradley Cross has rung his street-corner bell medley.
One of only three bell makers in the U.S., and the only one who exhibits at art fairs nationwide, Cross runs Harmony Hollow Bell Works
from a west-side studio in Ann Arbor. Cross' brother Jeff, aided by their father, a metallurgist who ran foundries during World War II and trained his sons in the art of bronze casting, founded the company in Arizona in 1969. After his brother's passing, Cross moved the company to Ann Arbor.
Bells were not his first calling. Cross holds an undergraduate degree in forestry and park planning and a graduate degree from the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources. After a three-year Peace Corps stint at a national park in Colombia, he consulted on systems planning for wild lands in underdeveloped countries. But "when President Reagan came in, he zeroed out all the conservation funds in Third World countries," Cross says. "So my career kind of came to an abrupt halt with President Reagan, and so I had this bell business and I focused on that."
Turns out the 1980s were a bell serendipity. "As Reagan got into his career as a president, things just got spectacular in the art-fair business," Cross recalls.
Due to lax financial oversight during Reagan's tenure and the savings and loan scandal, "these people who had wads and wads of hundreds in their pockets went to art fairs and were just spending it like it was water ... it was so easy to make money then that all of a sudden, the whole art fair became not just a little something to do on the weekends ... this became a real job with real money," he says, adding, "There were stories of people buying a whole booth."
While Cross' booth hasn't been bought out yet, there's always the next fair.
The bronze wind bells can hang outdoors year-round, and they carry a 350-year guarantee (which might make for some interesting returns at some point). Not many artisans can certify their work this way. "All over the place you've got potters and painters, but there's three bell makers in the whole country of the United States."
So why are bell makers such a rarefied bunch? "The skill level to make a bell really ring rather than clink is a long learning curve. Just because something looks like a bell, there's a lot more to it than that," Cross explains. "There's been lots of bell companies that have come and gone, because they knew how to pour metal, but they didn't know how to make the bell."
Bronze bells done right will outlast 350 years. "The Chinese invented bronze bells about 2500 B.C. Those bells still ring..." says Cross. "In the olden days in China the bell maker was number three in the hierarchy: Emperor, priest, then bell founder. Bells were considered as part of calling in the spirits and connecting with the gods. So, the bell man was very important to the dynasties in China."
Cross has designed bells for every occasion, from housewarming gifts to retirement celebrations. He and his brother and father used to do the foundry work themselves, but ceased after the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration imposed strict regulations. Now a foundry in Arizona makes the raw castings from Cross' patterns, and then he handles the rest from his three-person Ann Arbor studio.
Harmony Hollow also fabricates wind chimes, garden stakes, and other decorative ornaments in-house, from sheet brass and tubing. "In general, chimes are more preferred ... because there's more sound to them. You get a lot of different notes with a chime, whereas with a bell you get [only] one, but there's a richness that you get with a bell that you don't get with a chime."
The bulk of the business remains bells, sold mainly online or at art fairs. Cross used to sell to garden centers and major retailers like Marshall Field's, Dillard's, and Coldwater Creek. He plans to add wholesale accounts back when the overhead gets more sustainable.
The company doesn't make church bells or large carillon-type assemblies. Its bells are for residential use and run from 1.5 to 8 inches in size, with most costing from $50-$100. Wedding and remembrance bells are the most popular. Cross also does custom work, taking inspiration from customer requests and his own fancies. "For a long time I had a strong interest in petroglyph images from the southwest - images chipped on rocks, what native Americans did before the Europeans got here."
One bell, though, will be silenced for the next century. When the opportunity came to contribute to the time capsule buried at the site of the new Library Lane parking structure in downtown Ann Arbor, Cross added a ringer to the treasure trove.
"I...contributed a bell to [the capsule] so that people in 2112 will know that people really did make things in Ann Arbor 100 years ago," Cross says.
Tanya Muzumdar is a freelance writer, poet, and the Assistant Editor of Concentrate and Metromode. Her last feature was, "Always Running: Ann Arbor Track Club."
All photos by Doug Coombe