Ringing of Bells celebrates Declaration’s signers

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Fort Lewis DAR Vice Regent Cynthia McKinney, with decorated hat, and husband Bill listen as chapter Historian Mary Ann Hollandsworth reads the name of each signer of the Declaration of Independence and Carey Harveycutter rings the historic fire bell. It was the 22nd Ringing of the Bells, on July 4 in front of the Salem Civic Center.
Alex Burke, assistant director of the Salem Museum, talks about Brigadier Gen. Andrew Lewis’ part in the American Revolution.

Nine-year-old Eddie Robinson wanted to shut out the really loud ringing of the historic fire bell, but he also wanted to hear the names of the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence. So he held his hand part-way over his ears.

“I’ve heard the names of the signers before, but this time I was really listening,” Eddie explained.

He and his 14-year-old sister, Mary, and their dad, the Rev. Dr. Will Robinson, were taking part in the 22nd annual Ringing of the Bells in front of the Salem Civic Center. As he has for eight years, Dr. Robinson gave the invocation.

Years ago, Dr. Jeanne Hanson came up with the idea of a Fourth of July celebration remembering the real reason for the day, the signing of the Declaration, and recalling the patriots who put their names to the document. She wanted to make sure that people of all ages know and remember the reason for the Fourth of July.

The youngest who came to this year’s celebration was five-year-old Charlotte Ross Heming, Dr. Hanson’s great-granddaughter. “I came to see Mr. Carey ring the bells,” said Ross, who was at the event with her grandfather, Randy Hanson.

The late Dr. Hanson’s Fort Lewis Chapter of the National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution has kept up the celebration each year with many of the same traditions. Salem Tourism Director Carey Harveycutter once again solemnly struck the historic Salem fire bell, as Chapter Historian Mary Ann Hollandsworth read the name of each of the 56 signers from the 13 original colonies. Virginia had six in addition to the most famous one, Thomas Jefferson.

Then the 60 attendees went inside the air-conditioned civic center for refreshments and a talk about local Revolutionary patriot, Brigadier Gen. Andrew Lewis. Alex Burke, assistant director of the Salem Museum, told how Lewis was a trusted friend of George Washington.

“In my opinion, Lewis is the most important Salemite,” Burke said, tracing the general’s military career from his enlistment in the militia during the French and Indian War, and fighting with Washington’s army at Fort Necessity. “That was the only time Washington ever surrendered,” Burke mentioned.

At the start of the American Revolution, Lewis was up for brigadier general but Charles Lee was chosen instead. Lewis ultimately received the brigadier general rank in the state militia, Burke said.

Lewis, whose statue depicts him at Gwyn’s Island preparing to light a nautical canon stands in front of the Salem Civic Center, ran the last Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore, out of Virginia on July 9, 1776, Burke pointed out.

Washington pleaded with Lewis to stay in the military, Burke said, but he declined. Lewis finished out his career in the House of Burgesses. He represented the newly formed Botetourt County, serving from his election in 1769 until his death on the way back home from Richmond in 1771. Col. William Fleming, another locally famous man for whom a high school is named, was with him when he died, according to Burke.

Lewis is known as the father of Salem because he had a royal land grant of 600 acres, much of which became downtown Salem – and the area where the Salem Civic Center is located – after one of his descendants sold land to James Simpson who plotted the lots.

Lewis’ remains are interred in East Hill Cemetery. Originally his grave was on Carolina Avenue where an old metal fence surrounds a rock, behind a home, Burke said.

Children at the ceremony came away with a greater appreciation for history, they said.

“I think it’s really cool, all the names of the signers of the Declaration of Independence,” said Mary Robinson. “People think it’s only Thomas Jefferson.”

Members of other DAR chapters attended, including Wendy Warren and Betty Johnson, of the Col. William Preston DAR in Roanoke.