Virginia Belle Brewer, founder of the Brewer Bell Museum, has been collecting bells for almost sixty years. She now has nearly four thousand bells from fifty states and seventy-six countries.

Brewer opened her museum in 1973, but in 1996 an illness forced Virginia to close it down. Despite this, she vows to keep the bells together so as not to “split up the family.” In this documentary, Virginia Brewer discusses her love for her bells and the sacrifices she had to make to keep her not-so-booming business open. As she puts it, “I feel like the Lord intended me to share the beauty of bells with others. When the time comes, I feel He’ll work things out so the bells can be carried on long, long, long after I’m gone. That gives me the steam to keep on keeping on.”

Recorded in Canton, Texas. Premiered December 23, 1992, on All Things Considered.

Update on Brewer Bell Museum

Stephen Housewright, a friend of Virginia Brewer, sent the following letter to Sound Portraits on March 26, 2001.

I began visiting Virginia Brewer a year ago after overhearing a conversation about her at the library: “She’s not doing so well,” someone said. I remembered her from about ten years ago, when my late partner and I had gone by her shop to look for some bells for him to use in his music. Her love of bells and her determination to “hold on” had impressed us both, and so I thought I’d drop in and check on her.

Well, she captured my attention and my affection immediately. She was sick, lying helpless in bed and dependent upon caregivers that came and went, but she remained confident that things would somehow work out so that her bell collection could remain intact and available for people to appreciate after her death. I’d brought a loaf of homemade bread for her, which turned out to be a good idea since she always had her main meal at noon — a big bowl of soup. I’ve repeated the visit — and the bread delivery — every week since.

From time to time we’d talk about what would become of the bells, and the question became urgent as we watched the hastening deterioration of the museum building. There had been an extraordinary amount of rain here in Texas since the beginning of fall, and the old building was steadily coming down on top of the collection that Virginia had spent her life assembling. “The Lord will protect them,” Virginia would say, “but He can’t look after them forever.”

Her prayers were answered when the State of Texas appropriated funds to the city of Canton through a program known as “Main Street,” which gives grants to small towns to help them preserve their local heritage. Canton applied for and received a sum that will be used to spruce up the square and preserve our history, and a representative from the city visited Virginia to ask about the bell collection.

After a few weeks of deliberation and bargaining, the city agreed to accept the bell collection in exchange for maintaining Virginia’s house and yard and waiving her monthly water bill for the remainder of her life. It also agreed to keep the collection intact, and if for any reason the city is no longer able to maintain the collection, the bells will be given to the state.

I happened to stop by a couple of weeks ago while the collection was being moved. Volunteers were carefully packing the bells for transport to the old (and long idle) movie theater just off the square. Shelves and cabinets are being constructed to display the bells, which some say is worth close to $300,000. Virginia talks of attending the opening in a new dress and with a new hair-do.

When I went by last week, she was looking over a small collection of bells someone had sent her after reading about her in Holding On. She showed me one beautiful brass bell whose handle depicts a Medieval pilgrim on horseback, above the legend “Chaucer.” “He was an English poet,” I helpfully supplied.

“Yes, I know,” Virginia came back. “Whanne that Aprille with his shoures sote / The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,” she added.
What a lady!

Stephen Housewright

March 26, 2001

This documentary comes from Sound Portraits Productions, a mission-driven independent production company that was created by Dave Isay in 1994. Sound Portraits was the predecessor to StoryCorps and was dedicated to telling stories that brought neglected American voices to a national audience.