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Stephen Foster Memorial Carillon

Because Stephen Foster’s melodies speak of a uniquely American scene and culture and are so fundamentally American in mood and expression, the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center on the Suwannee River stands as a monument to the native musical greatness of our country.

The memorial to Stephen Foster has the majestic music of bells to play Foster melodies in the setting he made famous along the banks of the Suwannee River. The carillon is outstanding and is housed in an impressive, towering campanile.

Nearly 20 years of planning and preparation by the Stephen Foster Memorial Commission culminated in the erection of a 200-foot high campanile and selection of the Deagan carillon as Florida’s tribute to the composer of its state song, “Old Folks at Home.” The carillon tower was completed in 1957. Members of the Stephen Foster Memorial Commission traveled many thousands of miles over a period of many months auditioning all types of European and domestic bell instruments before selecting the American-made carillon to become the musical voice of the park.

The 97-bell carillon – one of the largest musical instruments ever produced in the Western Hemisphere and the world’s largest tubular bell carillon in number of bells was installed during the summer of 1958. It was built by the carillon division of J.C. Deagan, Inc., Chicago, at a total cost of just under $120,000. More than a year was required by Deagan craftsmen to build the huge set of bells, the greatest single manufacturing project in the firm’s 78-year history of originating and producing a variety of percussive musical instruments well-known throughout the world.

The bells of the Stephen Foster Memorial Carillon are of unique tubular design originated by Deagan in 1916. Deagan tubular bell carillons installed in this county and abroad during the intervening 42-year number more than 500. Most of these installations have 32 or fewer bells, while those at the School of the Ozarks, Hollister, Missouri, and in the House of God, Mooseheart, Illinois are notably larger bell instruments. The decision of members of the Commission was unanimous in favor of the Deagan Carillon after hearing the 64-bell installation at the House of God.

The Carillon at White Springs consists of three full sets of 32 bells with a scale range of C to G chromatic, plus a fourth high G bell. Three bells sound in perfect unison for each not to produce a strong, resonant tone response. The bells are sounded by powerful electric striking actions activated from a piano type electric console when manually played by a carillonneur, or from carillon-playing devices which are fully automatic in operation under clock control. Each bell is also equipped with an electric damper mechanism that is controllable by the carillonneur to prevent the intermingling of unrelated tones.

The largest, low C bells weigh 426 pounds each and are 12-1/2 feet long; the smallest, high G bells weigh 69 pounds each and are 3-1/2 feet long. The larger bells are 5 inches in diameter and have heavy ¾ inch walls. The huge wood rack which supports the entire 27 tons of 97 tubular bells, striking actions and dampers measures 21 feet high, 15 feet long and 11 feet wide.

The 97-bell carillon was silenced during the early 1980’s due to the enormous maintenance cost of the aging system. In 1991 efforts began to restore the carillon to its majestic splendor. Restoration work began on one set of bells in March 1992 and was completed in April 1993. Two Park Rangers at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park taught themselves how to maintain and repair the carillon and over a number of years restored the entire system to working order. After their retirement they continued to return on a regular basis to maintain and repair the system.

Unfortunately, during the summer of 2017, the carillon system sustained electrical damage in a storm and the bells were silent once again. Thanks to the efforts of the Stephen Foster Citizen Support Organization, the bells have been temporarily repaired and are currently ringing, however the project to restore the bells will cost over $84,000. The Verdin Company, which acquired the J.C Deagan company and has been creating and repairing bells and carillons for over 170 year has been tasked with making the bells 100% operational.

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