In Episode 117, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger visit Beer Bottle Church in Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, in search of the legend of the beer bottle that sits atop the First Baptist Church steeple. They also explore the strange story behind a unique clock located on that very same steeple. The clock and beer-topped spire are so inspiring that Jeff and Ray may just break into song at the end.
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*A note on the text: Please forgive punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes. Like us, the transcripts ain’t perfect.
[SFX CHURCH ORGAN MUSIC]
JEFF: (WHISPERING) Ray, this is truly our kind of church.
RAY: I’m not so sure, Jeff. This is a Baptist church… I’m not a Baptist.
JEFF: Neither am I, Ray. But trust me on this one. Though the First Baptist Church of Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, is the formal name, the nickname of this church is why we’re here.
RAY: What’s the nickname?
JEFF: Locals call this place Beer Bottle Church.
JEFF: Hi, I’m Jeff Belanger.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger, and welcome to Episode 117 of the New England Legends podcast. If you give us about ten minutes, we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.
JEFF: We appreciate when you join us on our adventures, and we really appreciate our patreon patrons! Our patrons are a growing army of supporters who help us bring you this show each week. We can’t do this without them. Our hosting costs, production costs, and marketing costs continue to rise as the show grows in popularity. So we’re grateful to those of you who stand behind us. If you can take on a bigger role with us, head over to patreon.com/newenglandlegends and for as little as $3 bucks per month you’ll get early access to new episodes plus bonus episodes that no one else gets to hear.
RAY: Also, we love it when you get in touch with us either through our Web site, Super-secret Facebook Group, or when you call or text our Legend Line at 617-444-9683. Many of our story leads come from you guys. And that’s what happened this week.
JEFF: That’s right. Joshua Harding texted our legend line asking if we’re ever going to cover the Beer Bottle Church. He grew up in nearby Portsmouth. And here we are.
RAY: Okay, Jeff… I take it back. I would definitely fit-in in a place called Beer Bottle Church.
JEFF: Amen to that!
RAY: So why do they call this place Beer Bottle church? Standing inside this building it looks like many other churches I’ve seen before.
JEFF: To answer that question, we’ll have to head outside.
[SFX FOOTSTEPS DOOR OPEN AND CLOSE]
JEFF: We’ll go across Lincoln Avenue here and head to the Hampton Falls Town Common.
JEFF: Okay, turn around, and now look at the church.
RAY: Okayyy. I’m looking. It’s a big, white church. There’s a church that looks like this in almost every small town in New England. Tall white steeple, it’s very clean… What am I missing?
JEFF: Check out the very top of the steeple.
RAY: Huh… ohhhh yeah! I see it! The very top looks like a white, wooden beer bottle.
JEFF: That it does, and now you know why they call this place Beer Bottle Church. The legend is that back in 1859 the church was trying to raise funds to build a new steeple when Frank Jones, a New Hampshire farm boy turned Portsmouth millionaire thanks to his brewery business, happened by the church. The church hit him up for money and Jones said he’d fund the steeple if he could pick the ornamentation. The church agrees, and now they’re stuck with a beer bottle up there. That’s the legend.
RAY: Okay, I don’t mean to stereotype all Baptists… but aren’t they generally opposed to booze?
JEFF: What makes you say that?
RAY: I consulted with a Baptist minister and he quoted the book of Ephesians Chapter 5, verse 18.
GOD: Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.
JEFF: Wait, isn’t spirit another word for hard alcohol?
RAY: Confusing, isn’t it? Especially when you talk about the book of Timothy chapter 5, verse 23.
GOD: Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.
JEFF: Talk about mixed messages! I heard someone tell me once that if you ever go fishing with a Baptist you have to bring two of them.
RAY: Why’s that?
JEFF: Because if you bring one, he’ll drink all of your beer.
RAY: (LAUGHING) Those must be the Timothy 5:23 faction of the Baptists.
JEFF: There’s definitely a touchy relationship with alcohol in the Baptist community which makes the beer bottle at the top so ironic. But this church… There’s one other weird legend attached to this steeple too.
RAY: Yeah, the clock on the tower is definitely weird.
JEFF: Yeah it is.
RAY: Instead of numbers 1 through 12, there are letters M-E-M-O-R-I-A-L-G-I-F-T. Memorial gift.
JEFF: The story there is that a wealthy man used to have to make the drive between Portsmouth and Newburyport on the regular, and he grew frustrated not knowing the time along the way, so he had clocks installed on various towers and church steeples on his route so he’d always know.
RAY: Okayyy… but wouldn’t buying a watch be significantly cheaper?
JEFF: (LAUGHING) I’m sure it would. We have stories to unpack here, Ray.
RAY: According to the clock tower, it’s half past A, so that seems like a good time to head back to the very beginning – 1727 – and set this up.
JEFF: It’s nighttime. October 29th, 1727… and something big is about to happen.
RAY: What the heck is that?!
JEFF: It’s an earthquake. A big one too! Folks in Hampton Falls are scared. Houses are quivering. Some chimneys are crumbling to the ground from the force. Folks are looking out their window and seeing this bluish light coming from the split open ground. (PAUSE) By the time the rumble finally stopped, this hill had formed and was covered in blue sand.
RAY: Oh man… it stinks around here. It smells like sulfur.
JEFF: Or brimstone… which is how this land got its name: Brimstone Hill.
RAY: From here we’re going to jump ahead to 1836. It would seem that Brimstone Hill is the perfect place in town to build a church. The First Baptist Church gets its humble start as a meeting house. There’s no fancy steeple or anything like that. Just a simple building where people meet. But over time, the congregation grows. More people means a bigger building. And more donations means there’s room for extras.
JEFF: Now it’s 1859, and the church is going to add a fancy white steeple. It’s true they need some extra money for the addition, but the story of the millionaire brewer footing the bill so he can place a beer bottle on top of a church… turns out to be false.
RAY: We checked and learned the truth. The construction of the steeple is mostly paid for by the church and its congregation, but that beer bottle is actually a gift of the Dodge Family. They’re members of the congregation, and they pony up $200 to a Boston firm to craft that decorative top piece.
JEFF: That piece is actually called a finial. That’s the term for a decorative knob at the top or end of something.
RAY: Jeff, you can call it anything you want, the damn thing still looks like a beer bottle to me.
JEFF: I agree. But we have to take the word of the family and craftsmen involved that beer bottles were not the intent.
RAY: From here we jump ahead again to 1894. The First Baptist Church of Hampton Falls is still going strong. And the famous steeple is about to get a new feature thanks to John T. Brown, Esquire. Recently, Brown’s wife Ellen passed away leaving her husband with her family inheritance. John feels the perfect way to honor his late wife is with a clock, so he gifts Hampton Falls with this giant clock with the words MEMORIAL GIFT instead of numbers. In much smaller letters, the face of the clock bears the name Ellen Brown.
JEFF: Since this is a gift to the town, the church agrees to place the clock on its steeple, which of course is the highest spire in town, because most New England towns have rules that state the church steeples must be the highest man-made structures in town.
RAY: The thing is, this isn’t the only clock John Brown gifts. He also places similar clocks in neighboring towns in the region. And that brings us back to today.
JEFF: Okaayyyyy… I get it now. The legend of the wealthy man who put up clocks on all of the towers so he could always see the time while driving through makes sense now. If I’m driving from own town to another and see the same clock show up multiple times, it’s easy to believe the legend.
RAY: A legend which it turns out, is pretty darn close to what actually happened. The only difference is the clock was left in memory of someone. And I’m guessing to make that fact crystal clear, Brown used the letters spelling MEMORIAL GIFT instead of numbers, because it would force people to ask who was being memorialized, and that would lead the curious to the name of his late wife.
JEFF: Which is kind of sweet, even if it makes for a somewhat confusing clock.
RAY: And if I lift my gaze just a little bit from the clock I still see what looks like a beer bottle on top of the steeple. I don’t care what fancy name you give it. And now I’m wondering what time happy hour starts here in Hampton Falls.
JEFF: Would God approve of that?
RAY: I’m reminded of Ecclesiastes chapter 9, verse 7.
GOD: Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do.
JEFF: Oh man, a drink sounds good right about now. And if the Bible says it’s okay then…
RAY: (INTERRUPTING) I can’t believe I didn’t notice earlier… you brought your guitar with you!
JEFF: Yeah man. I thought maybe we could end this one with a song.
RAY: A little Alan Jackson meets the First Baptist Church of Hampton Falls, New Hampshire?
JEFF: That’s what I’m talkin’ about. You ready?
[JEFF AND RAY SINGING]
Pour me something tall and strong, make it a Hurricane before I go insane
It’s only half past A, but I don’t care, It’s M o’clock, somewhere
RAY: That it is. We’d like to apologize to Alan Jackson for that, but we just couldn’t resist.
JEFF: And we’d like to thank Dave Schrader from the Travel Channel’s new hit show The Holzer Files for lending his voice acting talents this week. And of course our theme music is by John Judd.
RAY: If you enjoy our shows each week, please take a minute to post a review on Apple Podcasts. Or consider sharing our show on your social media pages. We believe these stories bring people together, and the more people helping us gather stories, the more interesting our show will be each and every week.
JEFF: Also be sure to visit our Web site at ournewenglandlegends.com to check out dates for my on-going story tour, plus there’s a link to buy your copy of the limited edition 2020 Haunted New England wall calendar featuring my stories and the creepy photography of Frank Grace. We still have a few left. They make a great holiday gift!
VOICEMAIL: Hi, this is Sandy Nicole from Clinton, Massachusetts, until next time remember the bizarre is closer than you think.
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