A series of wires, pivots, swivels, cranks and pull cords run throughout the antebellum house Melrose, and will soon be refurbished to help better tell the story of the house and the slaves that served it. (Ben Hillyer/The Natchez Democrat)
A series of wires, pivots, swivels, cranks and pull cords run throughout the antebellum house Melrose, and will soon be refurbished to help better tell the story of the house and the slaves that served it. (Ben Hillyer/The Natchez Democrat)

Bell call system at historic Melrose being revamped

Published 12:01am Thursday, June 5, 2014

By Mary Kathryn Carpenter

The Natchez Democrat

NATCHEZ — A renovation of historic Melrose will be ready to help visitors chime into history by the end of this year.

Repairs and replacements will be made to the existing bell call system in the house throughout the year with an undetermined completion date.

The bell call system is made up of a contraption of wires, pivots, swivels, cranks and pull-cords that resulted with a bell ringing and alerting slaves that they were needed somewhere in the house.

Jeff Mansell, a National Park Service historian with the Natchez National Historical Park, believes the refurbishment is necessary for the sake of the bells and for the sake of visitors to the home.

“(The bells) were in bad shape,” Mansell said. “We always get questions about the lives of (house) slaves versus those that worked in the fields. The system of bells illustrates (house slaves) were on call 24/7, 365 days a year.”

Natchez National Historical Park Historian Jeff Mansel, right, and Curator Cheryl Waldrep shine a light on some of the wiring that drops down from the main floor to the basement in the antebellum house Melrose. (Ben Hillyer/The Natchez Democrat)
Natchez National Historical Park Historian Jeff Mansel, right, and Curator Cheryl Waldrep shine a light on some of the wiring that drops down from the main floor to the basement in the antebellum house Melrose. (Ben Hillyer/The Natchez Democrat)

Melrose’s call system was made up of seven bells located either in the basement or on one of the porches overlooking the servants yard. The bells connected to nine locations throughout the house, including several bedrooms, the dining room, the front door, two parlors, the library and the front door.

The refurbishments to the system will be relatively simple, Jeff Mansell predicts.

“It’s not going to be a difficult process because our system is intact,” Mansell said while demonstrating that the connected wires used to ring the bells are still functional.

Mansell and facility manager James Davis plan to mount new bells, rewire a few of them where the original wire is not working and make sure all the internal pivot and swivel mechanisms are working.

According to Melrose curator Cheryl Waldrep, the original bells will be photographed, vacuumed with a high-efficiency particulate air vacuum to remove any loose debris and stored in a climate controlled storage room.

Waldrep said the pieces might later go on display in the Melrose museum, but that has not been decided.

Melrose is one of the outstanding classic Greek Revival homes in Natchez and is the centerpiece of the Natchez National Historical Park, one of the newest national parks, established by Congress in 1988 and dedicated in 1990.

Melrose stands today virtually as it did more than 169 years ago when it was constructed from a design by design by builder Jacob Byers of Hagerstown, Md.

socialism