Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Spirit of Russia Tolls on Farms Of Mississippi

Mother Russia shows her face in unexpected places -- like Artesia, Mississippi, a tiny farming community in a remote corner of the American South.


At the turn of the century, the tsarist realm was far from the thoughts of Artesia's residents. But for more than 50 years they would hear Russia's voice ringing over their prairies -- from a bell cast in faraway Moscow.


Animated by the Slavic imagination, Russian bells practically have souls of their own. Thus a bell from Uglich, a city north of Moscow, was punished like some mortal being -- its "tongue," or clapper, exiled to Siberia for sounding the alarm when Ivan the Terrible's son Dmitry was murdered. The bell got the blame for ringing in the Time of Troubles.


Like Russians themselves, bells can be rehabilitated. Broken during the atheistic Revolution, the bell from the church at Yaropolets, the estate of Pushkin's in-laws, was later retrieved and pieces of it displayed. It had been discovered that the bell was not a counter-revolutionary but, in fact, a hero: It had summoned villagers to greet Comrade Lenin and his wife Nadezhda Krupskaya on their visit to celebrate the coming of electricity.


Milder controversy surrounded the Russian bell of Artesia.


The bell was purchased by one Charles Smith, owner of Smith Oaks plantation, on a trip to Europe in 1902. In Moscow, Smith became intrigued with Russian bells and ordered a bronze model, which arrived two months later. Its assignment was to call farmhands to and from the fields.


"It became quite a marvel, as the rest of the plantation bells around us were cast of iron and did not have the tone of this bell, nor did the sound carry as far," said Tom Wilburn, Smith's grandson and the present-day proprietor of Smith Oaks.


The bell was rung at daylight for the farmhands to hitch up their mules -- or, later, to start their tractors. The one-hour lunch break, one-and-a-half hours during the sweltering summers, was also announced by the Russian kolokol.


Being Russian, it was natural that the bell would carry the spirit of its motherland wherever it tolled. And so the bell must be blamed for the mischief it inspired in Wilburn and his brother Saunders. It was 1932 and prohibition was still the law of the land. "We decided we needed a little stronger drink to lift our spirits," Wilburn, now 77, recalled. Nearby was a pear orchard, and the two teenagers learned from an old woman how to make pear beer.


One evening, the outlaws combined three gallons of ground pears and a pound of sugar stolen from the company store. They then searched for a hiding place where the concoction could ferment. Mounted in a tower with a roof, the 300-pound Russian bell seemed the perfect conspirator.


"At noon all the family was sitting on the back porch, enjoying the quiet country life, when the cook walked out to the bell tower to ring the noonday bell," Wilburn said. "At the first clap of the bell we all, my father and mother more so, saw this large bucket sailing across the sky, spewing its contents over the back yard."


The father went out to inspect and quickly identified both the evidence and the guilty parties. "Here was a great enterprise that died aborning," Wilburn said. "Wrecked by the great Russian bell."





Helen Womack is on vacation.