"Through the mad mystic hammering of the wild ripping hail
The sky cracked its poems in naked wonder
That the clinging of the church bells blew far into the breeze"
--From Chimes of Freedom by Bob Dylan
I'm not sure when it started, but the tradition of ringing the church bell starting at around 11:30 on July Third was firmly established when I arrived as pastor at Riverton Church in 2002. I'm told that back when the Episcopal Church was still functioning as a church (there's a glass-blowing factory in the building now), the two churches would hold dueling bell-ringing competitions, to see who could last the longest, and that the ringing might go on 'til 3 a.m. or so.
Nowadays, folks start lining up to ring the bell at around 11:30 p.m. or so. We normally get in the range of 20 people who take turns ringing. Ringing the bell at Riverton Church is tricky. Because of the placement of the bell rope, ringers have to lean over the stairway that leads to the basement, being careful not to lean too far lest they pitch head-first down the stairs. So far, nobody has been injured in this way, but it does require one to call on one's balancing skills. Bell-ringing is a vigorous aerobic activity--after a minute or two, ringers take a break and give the next person a chance. In most cases, they get back in line.
Bell-ringing for the Fourth of July is not just celebrated in Riverton. There is a national bell-ringing celebration organization; it is possible to register local events at their website: http://www.let-freedom-ring.org/