All photos/art by Caryn B. Davis
If the Bevin Bros. Manufacturing Company had gone out of business, we would have written you a pretty story, something wistful and touching about the latest industry to disappear from New England. It would have been sad and nostalgic, but–like any other eulogy–we would have made it pretty. This is not that story.
In East Hampton, Connecticut, one factory refuses to die. The old mill building stands dark and brooding. Its floorboards creak underfoot, and its red-brick walls have dulled with age. The old millstream flows quietly under the factory, while the flywheels it once powered hang still from the rafters. On a foggy morning, you’d swear the place was abandoned, but then someone flips on the lights and powers up the presses. The building breathes. As people get to work, it grows unnervingly loud in some places, unbearably hot in others. It is, quite simply, not pretty. But work rarely is.
The fate of Bevin Bros. came down to a single decision in 2008. The company had reached its 176th anniversary, but domestic taxes and cheap foreign labor were pushing it to the brink. Stanley R. Bevin, the fifth generation of Bevins to run the company in an unbroken line dating back to its founding, had had enough. He asked his nephew Matt whether he wanted to have a go at being the sixth.
“I don’t know why I took this on,” Matt says jokingly. The factory is just one more responsibility on his already-full plate. Only 43 years old, Matt is the president, chief investor, or a board member of 10 companies scattered around the country. If you ask him to name them all, he has to stop and think about it. His primary business is an investment-management firm in Kentucky that handles $2.7 billion of other people’s money. So, yes, Matt understands exactly how bad an investment a bell company is.
“If you were to start a manufacturing business, you probably wouldn’t start it in America. If you did, you certainly wouldn’t start it in Connecticut,” he explains. “The smart thing to do, at the minimum, would be to move it out of state. But then you’d be taking the bells out of Belltown.”
In the 19th century, if you were to come across a manufactured bell anywhere in the world, there was a good chance that it came from East Hampton (then called Chatham). For more than 100 years, bells sustained this city, home to 30 different manufacturers at one time or another. Founded in 1832, Bevin was one of the earliest and most successful.
But as the 20th century progressed, the bell industry succumbed to the same reality that’s been the scourge of other American manufacturers: It’s just plain cheaper to make simple products elsewhere. The other bell factories in town folded, one by one, until by the 1970s only Bevin Bros. remained.
Today, the factory employs just 20 people, and East Hampton has long since made the transition to post-industrial “bedroom community.” If Bevin Bros. were to go under, the town wouldn’t change much. Still, it’s important to Matt that the story here doesn’t play out the same way it has everywhere else. He didn’t come to East Hampton just to make bells; he came to make a statement.
“To me, this is a testament to perseverance,” he says. “This is a testament to proving that you can still manufacture and exist in America.”
Matt Bevin grew up to the sound of bells; he spent childhood vacations visiting his grandmother in East Hampton. Her parlor was like a showroom: Sleigh bells hung from the walls on worn leather straps, and handbells of all kinds were neatly arranged on shelves and tables. From his grandmother’s home, Matt would make the short trip down the hill to the factory, and, when he wasn’t busy sliding down the delivery chute, he’d help install tongues in the bells. The passion stuck with him, and he’s become a collector and connoisseur in his own right. He even claims to be able to spot a Chinese-made call bell from 10 paces: “It’s never quite straight.”
This past February he took his wife and five children to Nicaragua. On a street in Granada, he heard the whimsical harmony of a set of ice-cream bells somewhere in the distance and immediately recognized them as Bevin-made. A quick check of the maker’s mark confirmed it. He took a photo of his 5-year-old son, Isaac, with the old woman whose ice-cream cart they’d heard. He hopes his son will have the chance to be the seventh Bevin generation to make bells.
“To me this isn’t just a company,” Matt says. “Walking over the same floorboards as my ancestors, there’s a lot of history here and a lot of reasons to care about it intensely. It makes the difference between something you’re passionate about and something you’re just doing.”
Matt remains as much of a presence at the factory as he can. His other work keeps him away all but a few days a month, so when he’s there he likes to mingle with his employees. Deep in the belly of the plant, he checks in with Abdirahim Hussein, who’s examining a 150-ton press that has stopped working. When Matt goes to shake his hand, Abdirahim flips his wrists and offers the backs of his fingers so as not to smear grease on him.
The stalled press is a monstrous contraption; its steel body looms over a work area where sheet metal and ball bearings are smashed together to form delicate little jingle bells. Over the din of the factory floor, Abdirahim explains the problem. Matt asks whether he wants him to call the foreman over, but Abdirahim waves him off and says he can handle it.
“Not many jobs like this exist anymore,” Matt says as he walks away. The thought irks him visibly. He’s a true believer in the American Dream, and he worries about what will happen to it without manufacturing. After all, it’s hard to climb a ladder if you keep knocking out the lower rungs.
Matt holds Abdirahim up as an example. A Somali immigrant hired through Catholic Charities, he’s worked his way up to floor supervisor. Matt is planning to send him to management class. He believes that these kinds of small investments in his workers will pay dividends in the long run. “When you invest in people,” he says, “you give them a reason to give a crap.”
Making people care is one of the great challenges of any American manufacturer. It’s become such common wisdom that the days of “Made in America” are over that to argue otherwise sometimes gets you labeled as crazy. But American industry isn’t dead yet, and signs of that can be seen throughout the Bevin factory.
In one corner of the break room–in territory traditionally ceded to Coke or Pepsi–stands a vending machine stocked with Hosmer Mountain sodas. They’re from a tiny bottling firm based in Willimantic, Connecticut–one of a small web of New England manufacturers doing business with the Bevins. “There are a lot of little guys that are sort of dependent on other little guys like us,” Matt explains, ticking through a list of local contractors and clients.
He mentions a final Bevin client, one who’s based at the North Pole, repeating an old family joke about being Santa’s exclusive supplier of sleigh bells. Then, with perhaps a little too much sarcasm, he adds, “Santa, luckily, hasn’t outsourced to China yet.”
Unfortunately, to a large extent the rest of us have. “People say, ‘These Walmarts, they come in and ruin the mom-and-pops,'” Matt notes. “But the same people who say that don’t shop at those little places. They go to Walmart, where they can get it cheap.” He hopes to see the day when “Made in America” receives the same treatment as “organic,” with big-box retailers setting aside space for those products and giving people the choice to pay a little more to support something they believe in.
For now it’s all Matt can do to keep the factory running. After two years, he’s weeded out many of the inefficiencies and feels as though he’s stopped the bleeding. “I don’t know if we’ll thrive,” he adds. “But to survive and then do better than survive, that’s really what I’m striving to do.”
For Matt this isn’t just about keeping the family legacy going; it’s about digging in and defying the odds. He speaks of himself alternatively as the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike and as a contrarian businessman with his thumb in the eye of convention. “We might end up being the last company in America making something, and if we are, good,” he says coolly. “But I’m determined to at least get to our 200th anniversary. I’ve got 22 years to go.”
It’s impossible to know whether Matt has a chance of reaching that goal, and only time will tell whether he’ll be remembered as a visionary or as a stubborn businessman standing in the way of history. But what we do know is that in one small New England factory, he’s writing a different story. It’ll be interesting to see whether it catches on.
To learn more: Bevin Bros. Manufacturing Co., East Hampton, CT. 860-267-4431; bevinbells.com