It’s been a long and rocky road for the Nimmity Bell, but its midday peal is brightening the hearts of locals in a renewed and flourishing Monaro community.
Recent headlines focused around a dramatic incident when local farmer Howard Charles was trapped under the bell in Nimmitabel while moving it. Howard lost his foot, but not his sense of community spirit in the incident.
“It’s been a long story to which I simply added another chapter,” he says, slightly ruefully.
The Nimmity Bell has been a lengthy project for Nimmitabel Lions Club, which wanted to boost the town’s spirits and income after the local sawmill closed suddenly in the early 1990s, taking with it $1 million in local pay packets.
During the next two decades, employment opportunities for school leavers dried up, and combined with equally severe cutbacks in jobs on farms, Nimmitabel went into severe decline as most young people left the town and district, seeking employment and a new life elsewhere.
“Every business went almost broke, and the pub even closed down,” says Howard. “Richard Lawson, who chaired the Nimmitabel Advancement Group at the time, thought we needed a vision committee to stimulate business and tourism.
“Then some silly old bugger [Howard] woke up in the middle of the night with the bright idea that what we really needed was a Nimmity Bell.”
The Nimmitabel Lions Club, of which Howard was a founding member, took over the project. Farmer and landscape designer Kate Waldron designed the installation. Lions Club stalwarts Isabel and John Harrington, and Margaret and Leon Weston, rounded up local support, quickly raising $60,000 for the project from around 100 local families.
After endless searching, an appropriate, century old bell was found at Brosamer’s Bells in the US state of Michigan, the world’s largest historic bell dealer. It could be fitted with an electronic clapper and scheduled to ring at set times.
“Everyone got really excited about it, the bell was on its way and we went in to lodge the DA [development approval] at Cooma Council [Snowy Monaro Regional Council],” says Howard. “It was all going very well until they said, ‘Wait, you want to actually ring the bell?’
“We’d only ever said we wanted it to ring at midday, never anything else, but we got noise objections.”
The bell project was launched with much fanfare in 2015, but a few locals protested about perceived noise pollution risks. Asbestos was also identified as a risk on the original site so everything came to a standstill.
Six years and $10,000 in environmental studies later, an overwhelming community vote of confidence finally cleared the project to council’s satisfaction.
Rejoicing all round ensued, especially for the 100 families who contributed to the projects, whose names and those of their ancestors are listed on brass plaques at the site.
Then the bell fell on Howard while it was being installed. He still thinks he’s the luckiest man alive.
“How many times do you get stuck in a bell?” he asks. “The clapper [not installed at the time] could have killed me. It fell a metre and a half. I was sitting inside the bell, on top of the plinth, thinking, ‘This is not good, Charlie boy.’
“But then a crane came through town 10 minutes later, the police were doing a patrol changeover and came over to lend a hand. Within a short time an ambulance from Bega was hailed down while my anguished wife, Annie, was saying, ‘What have you done, you silly old fool?’
“Before I knew it, I was in the air ambulance and on my way to Canberra.”
A major bell reopening is planned for 2 October, 2021, when local MP John Barilaro, who helped with significant contributions towards the project, will return to Nimmitabel to do the honours.
In the meantime, Nimmitabel is booming.
Town water supplies, which had always been a problem, were solved by the construction of Lake Wallace. There is not a vacant house in town and young families have moved in from Cooma.
New businesses, including a wood carver, cafe and the always popular bakery are full as approximately one million vehicles pass through the town each year. The Nimmitabel Lions Club, whose numbers have doubled in recent years, is preparing to complete the cycle path around Lake Williams.
Howard, who says he has become completely accustomed to his new foot, is now the club president.
“The Nimmity Bell will be a symbol of the new Nimmitabel,” he says, paying homage to his home town’s “indomitable spirit”.
“It is a story that the Lions Club will feature in and of which we should feel wonderfully proud. Not many other small towns have achieved such an incredible feat, and the Lions Club has led the way.”