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Giant bell salvaged by Gaspar's Grotto rings up donations for Shriners

The 34-inch cast-iron tip-jar bell occupies a place of honor behind the bar at Gaspar’s Grotto in Ybor City.
The 34-inch cast-iron tip-jar bell occupies a place of honor behind the bar at Gaspar’s Grotto in Ybor City.
Published Nov. 21, 2016

TAMPA — The term "tip-jar bell" seems to denote delicate tinkling chimes, like an angel earning its wings in It's a Wonderful Life.

But the peal of the hefty, 740 pound, cast-iron bell hanging behind the bar at Gaspar's Grotto in Ybor City is something you feel in your fillings.

Made in the 1880s, the former church bell occupies a place of pride behind the E Seventh Avenue bar. Add in its iron suspension and wheel, and you're talking half a ton of ding-dong.

The bell is rung by bar staff with a quick tug on the toller, a hammer that strikes the bell.

Much more satisfying for patrons, however, is when they get to tug on a length of thick rope that tilts the 34-inch bell so it strikes the clapper.

"You can Quasimodo that thing if you need to," said Gaspar's owner Eric Schiller. "We call it the world's largest tip bell because we believe it is."

Schiller was so sure, in fact, he has contacted the Guinness Book of World Records. However, they declined to introduce a category, he said.

"I'll wear them down. Sometimes it takes years to do these things," he said.

The bar uses the lure of ringing the bell to raise funds for Schiller's favorite charity, the Shriners Hospitals for Children.

Patrons can earn the right to sound the bell if they make a donation to the hospital. The donations are collected in a fez.

"They all get a pretty good thrill out of it when they ring the bell," said Andy Seavey, Gaspar's general manager. "We have people who've thrown tens and twenties in there."

The bell was built in a Cincinnati foundry for a south central Indiana church, Schiller said. There it summoned worshipers to Sunday services for almost 70 years before the church was demolished.

It was purchased in the 1960s by a farmer in Spencer, Ind. He left it outside next to a barn where it lay half buried under hay and horse manure until 2015.

"He intended to put it up but he never did," said Schiller, who along with his wife, Shere Schiller, paid the farmer $500 for the bell.

It needed a lot of love and care to get it back to working order.

Schiller looked far and wide to find missing parts. Those he couldn't find had to be made, including a new clapper that was cast by a Tennessee foundry. The bell had to be sandblasted and powder-coated to restore its bronze-like finish.

Hanging the bell behind the bar was equally challenging. A temporary wooden ramp had to be built, and jacks and winches were used to hoist the bell.

Schiller regularly gets in touch with ship breakers to see if there is anything he can salvage for his nautical-themed bar. It includes 10 former ship bells connected to kinetic sculpture that among them have racked up more than 20 million sea miles

But it's the church bell that really interests patrons, he said.

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"Nobody normally gets a chance to ring a bell like that," Schiller said. "There are very few places you can do something like that."

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

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