FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS

Written By: Jason Graziadei | Photography By: Kit Noble

Nantucket’s only Guinness World Record holder keeps his wife’s memory alive by tending to her bell collection.

On a quiet side street in ’Sconset resides the island’s only Guinness World Record holder. Inside what he calls “The Belfry,” Nantucket resident Nelson “Snooky” Eldridge carefully attends to the world’s largest collection of bells—more than 11,500 of them—that cover the walls and every nook and cranny in three large rooms of his home. There’s no website or social media pages, and you won’t find The Belfry on any list of island attractions. Snooky, a lifelong ’Sconset resident and retired volunteer firefighter, hands out business cards with his phone number and welcomes visitors year-round by appointment only.

Even if he only gets about a dozen visitors each year, The Belfry represents Snooky’s way of carrying on the memory and life’s work of his wife, the late Myrtle Eldridge, who spent decades collecting the bells and meticulously cataloging them before her death in 2006. The story of The Belfry, then, is truly a love story.

The Guinness World Records organization officially recognized Myrtle’s collection as the world’s largest back in 2005. The framed certificate hangs prominently in one of The Belfry’s three rooms. Since then, Snooky has continued to add to the collection, even if he’s not actively searching for more bells as his late wife once did.

“She was bent on having the world record,” he said. “She documented every bell.” As he walked through The Belfry, Snooky noted his wife’s very first bell that she brought home one day in 1963. “The bell that started this whole collection she found at the ’Sconset dump when we had our own dump out here on this end of the island,” he said. “It started growing from there, and all the sudden she said, ‘The kids are getting too big, they’re going to break them all.’ So she put them away for a few years, but once [the kids] quieted down a bit, [the bells] came out again and I said, ‘Get out of the way, because here they come.’”

More than 11,500 bells make up Eldridge’s world record collection.

From that first bell Myrtle took home from the dump, her collection grew into the hundreds and then the thousands. She and her friends would hit every yard sale on the island searching for bells of all shapes and sizes. Many she secured from friends and family back in her home state of West Virginia. And anytime the Eldridges would travel off-island, their first stop would be the New Bedford antique stores. The bell collection grew so large, Snooky said, that in the summer of 1998, he built a 400-square-foot addition onto his ’Sconset home just to house the bells. “We were running out of space, and I said, ‘You’re not going to take over the house!’”

Inside The Belfry, the sheer number of bells surrounding visitors is almost overwhelming. It’s a feast for the eyes, and photos alone don’t do it justice. The bells are stored in relics of Nantucket history: a display case from the old Seven Seas gift shop or a cigar humidifier from the Nantucket Pharmacy that had been destined for the dump before the Eldridges snagged it.

Amid the thousands of bells on display, Snooky can quickly point out a few of the more notable ones in the collection, and some that have a story behind them, including “the only one that means a damn to me.” It’s the bell from Nantucket’s first motorized fire engine, a 1923 Stutz.

“That engine was on its way to ’Sconset, and where the Tom Nevers Road comes in, it T-boned a Mac truck turning into the Milestone cranberry bogs with a load of boxes,” he said. “The engine was on its way out to a fire and was never worth a damn after that.”

Another one Snooky pointed out with a hint of pride is a large bell that used to hang in the Brotherhood of Thieves. “The big one up there,” he said, “when Arty Krause had the Brotherhood, that’s what he rang for last call.” And there was the bell made out of parts from German airplanes shot down over England during World War II, engraved with busts of Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt.

The late Myrtle Eldridge

But throughout The Belfry, it is Myrtle’s presence that looms the largest. There’s the picture of her with the first bell she collected from the ’Sconset dump, along with her notebook with thousands of typed entries for each bell noting their place of origin and a description. There are hand-written notes documenting when, where and from whom she acquired a certain set of bells. And there are clippings from the American Bell Association newsletters marking her record-setting collection, as well as her death in 2006. For Snooky, they are all memories of Myrtle that he holds dear.

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