BLOUNTVILLE — You might have seen them in this or that local Christmas parade in recent years. And if you did, you probably heard them coming. And, maybe, hated to see them disappear into the distance once they’d passed by your spot.
Even their owners, Jerry and Nelda Fleenor, say they sound sweetest from afar. And that makes them perfect for the couple’s favorite way of sharing them.
What are they?
What’s that again, you say?
Una-Fon bells, which as a set form an electric musical instrument operated by a keyboard. Their sound is part pipe organ, part xylophone. Their trilling is, well, thrilling.
Especially for Jerry. The sound of the bells, he says, takes him back to Christmas Eves of his childhood — riding in the backseat of his family’s station wagon as his father, Lynn Fleenor, drove around their community, stopping at the homes of friends, fellow church members and especially the sick or shut-in. That’s what Jerry and Nelda enjoy doing most with the bells today, the couple said as they flipped through a well-organized three-ring binder all about the history of Deagan Unafon bells and a photo album about this set in particular.
Deagan is the manufacturer who made the bells at its Chicago headquarters, probably around 1904 from what the Fleenors have been able to learn.
“I grew up in the back of a station wagon,” Jerry said. “So it’s a sentimental thing for me. I grew up with them. He’d go to the nursing homes. He went to the hospital one year. We’d go to a friend’s house and back up in the driveway, and everyone inside would come out and listen to the bells.”
The story of how Jerry’s father came to own the Una-Fon bells — the Fleenors have been told there are only three others known to exist in the nation — has connections to Christmas.
“When Dad was in the military and stationed in Arkansas, he heard a set,” Jerry said. “And he said the sound made him homesick. He decided then he’d like to someday have a set of his own.”
According to old newspaper articles the Fleenors keep inside that three-ring binder, it was Christmas Day 1943 when Jerry’s father, a young soldier stationed then at Camp Chaffee near Fort Smith, Arkansas, and away from home for the first time in his life, first heard a Deagan Una-Fon. The first song he heard on the bells: “Silent Night.”
Lynn made a promise to himself that he’d someday find a way to get some of those bells and use them to bring joy to his community back home.
It took him until 1960 to find a Una-Fon, and then only after advertising in Billboard magazine. He purchased it from a “curiosity shop” in Philadelphia, according to the old newspaper clipping, and the instrument was in “sorry” shape. But Lynn brought it back to life. And for years he adhered to advice given to him by the owner of that first Una-fon he’d heard in Arkansas: Only bring it out to play Christmas music a few days near Christmas each year — to preserve the mystique, the anticipation the thrill of its trilling.
The elder Fleenor kept that tradition going each year, despite the increased challenge of finding replacement parts, until the early 1980s.
Then it went into storage. And those childhood rides were stored in Jerry’s memory. Until a few years ago.
Jerry started working to restore the Una-Fon as best he could. He took it apart. He sanded and refinished its wooden mounting. He polished each hammer (”I wore my buffer out”). And he worked and sought repairs for the wiring and solenoids.
Then Nelda got involved and the restoration became a full-on priority project. She searched and researched online. And in 2012 she found the expert they needed ... right in the old Deagan building in Chicago. Gilberto Serna, a former employee of the long-closed company, operated an instrument repair business on a leased floor of the old factory.
Jerry and Nelda drove to Chicago that March to hand deliver each of their Una-Fon’s metal bars to Serna. The expert shined and tuned each one and advised against refinishing the components beyond a good polish because it could change the tone. The couple drove back up about a month later to pick up the refurbished bars.
From meticulous notes Nelda kept from their trip and interactions with Serna:
“Our vintage set of Una-Fon bells are bar-type bells with a scoop-like depression in the center, with a closed-end, tubular resonator behind each bar, reiterating electromagnets fitted with hard beaters. The bells are played from a piano keyboard and have an unusual and unique sound, with a prominent harmonic clang tone.”
Jerry built a new trailer on which to mount and haul the electric instrument.
And now, in addition to continuing his father’s tradition of taking the bells to the homes of the elderly, sick and shut-in — accompanied at times by choir members from their church — Nelda and Jerry have entered the Una-Fon in local Christmas parades. This year it was given a prime location, just before Santa, in the Blountville Ruritan’s Christmas Parade and the Kingsport Christmas Parade.
The Fleenors said from their research, there’s no clear answer why the Deagan Company apparently produced very few of the instruments, but that was not Deagan’s primary business. The company was widely known for other percussion instruments, tubular bells and chimes.
In fact, the Deagan Company installed chimes in the First Baptist Church on Church Circle in downtown Kingsport in the 1940s, according to the Fleenors’ research of the business.
“It’s just something that I get the joy from hearing them,” Jerry said. “It’s sentimental to me.”
What are they worth?
“You don’t have enough to buy them,” Jerry said. “I’ll never sell them.”