Norwich plans loud celebration that would make Lincoln proud

Norwich - Freedom will ring in Norwich for the second time in 150 years on Jan. 1, 2013, as plans are coming together to re-enact the city's raucous and emotional celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863.

Several local historical, religious and civic groups will announce plans on July 13 for a major celebration to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The public information session, called Freedom Will Ring, will follow the installation of the replica portrait of Abraham Lincoln in City Hall. East Lyme artist Christopher Zhang won the contest this spring to recreate a 19th-century painting of Lincoln stolen from City Hall in 1994.

The informational session will begin at 7 p.m. July 13 at City Hall and will serve as the kick-off for the Emancipation Proclamation anniversary, with appearances by re-enactors portraying President Lincoln and Civil War era Gov. William A. Buckingham and music performed by former state Troubadour Tom Callinan, who wrote a new song for Norwich's planned celebration.

During the event, the Emancipation Proclamation Commemorative Committee will share plans for a "Emancipation Proclamation Bell" to be cast and hung in a tower to be constructed and erected in downtown Norwich in time for the 2013 celebration.

On Jan. 1, 1863, bells in Norwich rang for a solid hour to celebrate Lincoln's signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

For the past year, members of Friends of the Norwich Bells have been climbing church, firehouse and mill towers to assess the condition of the city's historic bells to prepare for a bell ringing re-enactment. That effort grew into plans to cast a 255-pound bronze Emancipation Proclamation Bell in Norwich, at this point the only such plan in the nation, said city Historian Dale Plummer.

The Verdin Co. of Cincinnati, Ohio, will cast the bell, which will be permanently mounted in downtown Norwich. The project will cost $100,000 including the tower, Plummer said.

The architectural firm of Barun Basu Associates of New London has agreed to design the tower, which will house the bell, to be named "Forever Free."

Fundraising efforts are under way, and the committee is seeking donations from grant foundations, businesses and the public.

"This is truly a unique undertaking," Plummer said. "One hundred fifty years from now, the bell will be rung and people will recall the legacy of Norwich as key in the effort that all people may be 'forever free.'"

The Verdin Co. also has offered to inspect all Norwich bells at no cost and offer estimates for repairs at "reasonable cost," said Kevin Harkins, president of Friends of the Norwich Bells, that would bring them to working condition.

Officials from the Verdin Co. will attend the informational session July 13 to discuss the project.

Plummer said his own amateur inspections have shown that the bells mostly are in good condition - only one of the 19 bells examined thus far had a crack - but the bell casings and ringing mechanisms might need work. The bell in the Central Baptist Church in Union Square, for example, is stuck at an angle after the church attempted to ring the bell several years ago.

Plummer said the committee does plan to ring as many bells as possible on Jan. 1, 2013, but probably not all of them for a solid hour.

"Some bells will sound off early on, and then come back in later," he said. "At one point, probably at the end, everything will be going on at once."

c.bessette@theday.com

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