An iron bell no larger than a foot in diameter called court to session in 1749. The courthouse bell, 268 years old, was mounted on the top of the roof that graced the front porch of the house of law. It was hung from a three sided support and off-center in relation to the front door because the bell didn’t move, only the clapper inside, so the rope to the bell would be in the way of the door. The bell warned not only of a trial, but of sentencing, too.
When the contract to build the old courthouse was let, it included not only the building, but a jail and a pillory. The water at what is now Swift Creek was not deep enough, so the pillory was built at Bermuda Hundred. The interior of the 1749 courthouse was burned during the Revolutionary War, and it wasn’t rebuilt until 1976 for the bicentennial celebration. Rotarians thought a museum of Chesterfield history was important. The bell predated he Liberty Bell by three years, has been restored to its original glory.
“First it was mounted on the front porch of the original courthouse, then it went on the 1917 courthouse for 100 years, and now it’s come full circle,” said Liess van der Linden-Busse, chairman of the Library and Centennial Committees for the Chesterfield Historical Society of Virginia.
In 2015, Buddy Cranford climbed to the cupola and took photos of the bell. It was looking its age. Eighty percent of what was supposed to be a black painted bell was covered in white paint from years of maintenance of the cupola itself.
Sharon Norquist of Norquist Conservation Studio LLC said the bell should not be used as it was in the past. It is apt to crack. When a new Chesterfield County Courthouse was built in 1917, and the bell was mounted in an open-sided cupola high above the 100-year-old courthouse. Norquist’s job was to clean it and stabilize it.
Norquist, who has a master’s in object conservation, came to Chesterfield to restore the bell, a painstaking job in which she used a scalpel, light chemicals, and special protective restorative paint.
“I travel to the object because it’s safer for the object,” Norquist said.
As she was finishing her third and final day on the job, she had yet to find the “maker’s mark” on the bell which would show where the bell was made and who made it.
The historic bell will now reside in the Chesterfield museum with other local artifacts and periodic exhibits.
Where will Norquist work next?
“I’ll be working on radios for the national air and space museum,” she said. “But being a metals specialist I get into technical objects, of course, even this bell was designed to function”
The October ceremony will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1917 courthouse.
The Historical Society as well as other departments in the county are currently working on the program.