Ring those bells

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a regular monthly series on the history of Webster City, written by local historian, Nancy Kayser

Generations of students and town’s folk believed the local legend of the origin of the city’s first school bell which related that it was a German brass bell salvaged from a wrecked steamboat during the late 1850s.

The tradition suggested the big school bell came from a steamboat grounded at the mouth of the Boone River in its attempt to reach Fort Dodge around 1858 or 1859. In repeating the story, the steamboat was referred to as the Charles or Charlie Rogers, the Thomas or Tom Rogers and the Colonel Rogers. Supposedly, the bell was hauled by horse-drawn wagon across the prairie to Webster City.

It wasn’t until the editors of the Freeman-Journal took the time to research the legend of the school bell for their September 5, 1938 Iowa Centennial Edition did Webster City finally know the true history. Their research showed the March 15, 1867 issue of the Hamilton Freeman reported that C. W. Coon, principal of the local schools, superintended a school exhibition held in Estes Hall. The proceeds of the event were to be used to buy a bell for the recently erected schoolhouse.

The affair netted $48 which was used to purchase a large school bell. An amalgam bell weighing 230 pounds arrived in Webster City the week of June 12, 1867 according to the newspaper and lay dormant until it was mounted in the Union schoolhouse the first week of September 1867. The city now had a school bell to call the children of the city to school.

In the 1860s a new amalgam bell was advertised to be of superior tone and inexpensive as it was made of hardened cast iron. The price then was just one-third the cost of the traditional brass bell. Advertisements of that era suggested that was rapidly replacing other bells in schools and churches.

The 1867 bell rang first from the bell tower of the Union school, then the old Academy building, moving for a short time to a temporary school building called the Barracks and finally in the 1881-built North school which was torn down in 1921.

The old bell languished in storage and the tradition of its ringing announcement of the start and end of each school day was missed by students, teachers and town’s people.

Webster City Class of 1923, which included Mack Kantor, decided just before their graduation in June of that year, to give most of their senior class play profit to erect a campanile to house the old school bell. Bess Lyons, teacher and local historian, was selected by the school board to chair the bell committee and to spearhead a public fund-raising.

C. E. Atkinson, Webster City contractor for the new Washington Central school building, had also received the salvage deed on the 1881 schoolhouse and its contents. Those contents included the historic school bell bought in 1867. Atkinson recovered the bell during demolition of the building and presented it, at no cost, to the Class of 1923.

Former students from around the country and the world donated to the fund as did the citizens of Webster City to put the fund near $700 by the fall of 1923.

A drawing of a proposed bell campanile appeared in the November 17, 1923 issue of the Freeman Journal. Seemingly, the school board, without input or approval from the bell committee, had selected a design for the campanile and let the contract. The committee and the class were disappointed, with the 1923 class members remaining in Webster City voting to withdraw their funding.

The committee regrouped in mid-1924 and the project began again. Robert Crovisier, a senior mechanical drawing class student, designed an enclosed tower campanile.

The structure was completed in late September of 1924 and the bell was remounted. The bell would no longer call the children to school, but instead would celebrate the epic events and sports victories of the local school.

The school bell hung in the campanile from 1924 until July 29, 1961 when the supports failed and the bell plunged to the ground. Investigation of the condition of the campanile showed the mortar in the entire structure had failed and for safety reasons, the campanile was demolished a month later. The bell again was sent to storage.

The students again missed the tradition of tolling the bell in celebration of events. In 1964, Webster City high school Class of 1965 took the initiative to bring the bell to the newly built high school grounds.

To fund a bell tower, the Class of 1965 put on a concert by the nationally famous Chad Mitchell Trio in May of 1964. Class members were in charge of the entire event from booking the Trio, to setting up the stage and chairs in Jefferson Gym, to being ushers and stagehands. They even divided the city into districts and individually canvassed the town to sell tickets. More than 1,600 people came to the concert to enjoy an evening with the nationally famed TV stars and recording artists.

The new 20-foot tall, steel pipe tower was erected on the northwest corner of the high school grounds in 1965. The 1867 bell again rang out in celebration at the hands of the students.

A county survey of historic artifacts for the 1976 Bicentennial celebration found the 1867 school bell was missing. Investigation showed the bell had developed a crack in the early 1970s, more than likely an aftermath of the 1961 fall. The bell was removed and school officials, unaware of its historic significance, sent the bell to scrap.

To fill the void, the Clair Bosworth family donated a replacement bell, which had originally been used in one of the local early day rural school buildings, for the 1965 tower.

The construction of the 2012 competition gym at Webster City high school forced the removal of the 1965 tower and Bosworth bell. Again, the Class of 1965 came forward with funding to preserve the tower and bell. After sandblasting and a new protective coat of paint, the 1965 tower and bell was erected near the speaker’s platform at Graceland cemetery where it will continue to serve the citizens of our town.

To continue the tradition of a school bell ringing out in celebration, the Class of 1965 also funded the purchase of a new brass bell which hangs in the recently constructed Victory Plaza beside the new gym complex.

Today, Webster City has a historic old bell and a brand-new brass bell to ring in celebration of events. A new era has begun.