Norwich goes all out for Lincoln

Norwich - The sign at the donation jar in the hallway outside Council Chambers read "Lincolns and Lincolns" - meaning $5 bills and pennies - to raise money for a big celebration planned for Jan. 1, 2013, to mark the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The sign also could have referred to two highlights of Wednesday's kick-off event. The evening started with the unveiling of the new replica of the 19th century Lincoln portrait that once hung on the second floor of City Hall. The replica now hangs in the same spot where the original hung before it was stolen in 1994.

East Lyme artist Christopher Zhang, who won an $8,000 contest to replicate the portrait, pulled down the red, white and blue cloth that veiled the portrait to the applause of more than 50 people crowded into the hallway, now protected by security lights and cameras.

President Abraham Lincoln, portrayed by Lewis Dube, addressed the audience later Wednesday with humor and solemn gratitude for the city's strong support of his administration's struggles during the Civil War. Lincoln noted that Norwich was a bastion of freedom for decades before the great conflict, dating back to the Revolution.

Quoting from the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln said history would remember him most for that proclamation freeing slaves in the rebellious states and inviting them to join the Union Army.

As for the painting, Lincoln poked fun at himself, quoting a critic who called him the "homeliest" man on earth.

"You and I are here to see that beautiful painting," he said, "subject matter not withstanding."

Norwich strongly supported Lincoln in his 1860 campaign for president and raised a loud cry in celebration when Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation took effect Jan. 1, 1863. Bells throughout the city rang for a solid hour to mark the historic occasion, rousing the citizens if spooking the livestock somewhat.

"Freedom Will Ring" was the second theme Wednesday, as the Emancipation Proclamation Commemorative Committee and Friends of the Norwich Bells revealed plans for what so far is the only planned custom-cast bell to commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation.

Fundraising in dollars and pennies started Wednesday for the $100,000 project that would place a bell tower permanently in downtown Norwich to mark the anniversary.

The Emancipation Proclamation Bell would be cast by the Verdin Bell Co. of Ohio. Company President Jim Verdin showed slides of the company's five generations of dedication to bell casting and restoration and clock towers. His great grandfather invented the electric weight clock winding mechanism and his grandfather invented the electric system to ring tower bells automatically.

"It's a thrill to carry on that tradition for a fifth generation," Verdin said.

The Verdin Co. will bring "the world's only bell foundry on wheels" to Norwich to cast the 255-pound bronze bell. Mayor Peter Nystrom said one possible location is the City Hall plaza in front of City Hall. He said he wants the bell to be located within "loud earshot" of the new Lincoln portrait or the restored 1860 Lincoln campaign banner that hangs in City Hall.

"We're trying to keep an open mind and do what's best for the community," Nystrom said.

c.bessette@theday.com

Donations for the Norwich Emancipation Proclamation Bell: Checks should be made to "National NAACP" with "EP Bell" in the memo line.

Mail to Norich NAACP, P.O. Box 24, Norwich CT 06360.

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