Reading’s Pagoda Bell
By WAYNE E. HOMAN
Instructions for its use, as well as a written history, came with the Reading Pagoda bell when it arrived here May 5, 1907. Unfortunately, the written history as well as an important part of the bell has been lost. Fortunately, the history is contained in old Japanese (kanji) characters on the bell and an account appeared in the Eagle that May day in 1907.
Unfortunately again, the story of how the authentic and historic bell was acquired exists only in a tale that has come down among relatives of William Abbot Witman, builder of the Buddha temple that overlooks Reading.
One thing is certain from a translation of the Japanese characters. This is that the bell is one of the oldest pieces hereabouts. It was cast in Obata in 1739 by a man named Mikawaya and presented by him and forty-seven of his friends to the Buddhist Temple, Shozenji, at Yakuosan, now part of downtown Tokyo near Hibiya Park. The inscriptions on the bell are the names of the donors.
Charlotte Shick Dodson, native of Reading, now of Cleveland and a niece of Mr. Witman, tells the story about the bell’s acquisition. The tale has never been published but it is apart of the family folklore. She says Mr. Witman told her that when the Pagoda was being built, the recommendation for an authentic bell came from a Japanese family living in Reading at the time. This family assisted in placing the order for the bell.
There was only one family of Japanese origin in Reading in 1907-09; Mr. and Mrs. S. Miyanaga who operated a Japanese merchandise store at 607 Penn Street. Apparently they came to Reading just as the Pagoda was under construction. Mr. Miyanaga, whose father was mayor of Kobe at the time, had traveled all over the world. He came to America and subsequently made trips to Manila and Europe. He returned to Tokyo in 1900 where he married Kiku Takami. Who, like her husband, was a graduate of advanced Japanese schools. They had operated stores in Boston, New York, Jacksonville and Tampa before moving to Reading.
Mr. Witman ordered the bell through the agency of A. A. Valentine of Broadway, New York City, an exporter and importer. It is possible that this was the same agent who supplied the Miyanaga family with their store material. The bell arrived in New York on April 19, 1907 and was shipped by the Reading Railroad to this city.
The shape of the Reading bell itself is interesting. It appears to be a miniature of the bell in a field near the Buddhist monastery of Miidera, near Kyoto. The Miidera bell is five feet in diameter and is said to have been originally as bright as silver. This bell has a rich history including many legends.
One legend describes a lady’s visit to the temple. Instead of devoutly praying, she went to the bell, viewed herself in its reflective exterior and arranged her hair. The bell became angry at this disrespectful behavior and at once turned its shiny surface into millions of equally fine wrinkles.
When the miniature bell reached Reading there was with it another now-missing piece. This was a horizontal beam that hung by four ropes close to it. There was no clapper like those on Occidental bells. Oriental temple bells do not have clappers. This beam was swung on its ropes by a bell ringer who had a fifth rope as a guide string. This assured that the striker would beat against a disk-like spot (high on the side of the bell), and give the best tone. Striking the bell at the bottom produced lesser tones.
Mrs. Dodson remembers seeing the striker on the top floor of the Reading Pagoda. She used it many times when her uncle took her there during the building’s construction.
What became of the striker is as much a mystery as what became of the Oriental furniture Mr. Witman once installed at the Pagoda.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 1975 issue of The Historical Review of Berks County.