Pealing back the years: Morrison’s wandering school bell comes home for good

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By Stephen Knapp

On the afternoon of Jan. 22, with nothing special in the way of salute or ceremony, the town of Morrison officially welcomed back one of its own, and a cherished piece of the little town’s big historical inventory resumed a place of honor along the shady banks of Bear Creek.

It’s been more than half a century since the Morrison school bell’s clear voice last summoned young scholars to their lessons, but long absence hasn’t diminished the great instrument’s ability to bring folks together.

“In a little town like Morrison, the school bell was something the community could coalesce around,” says Jerry Smith, the town’s special projects coordinator. “People really got excited about bringing it back here.”

Small wonder, considering the weight of history encompassed beneath the bell’s smooth bronze apron. Manufactured in 1870 by A. Fulton Sons & Co. of Pittsburgh — and possibly intended to serve aboard an Ohio riverboat — in 1879 the bell found its way to the 4-year-old Morrison Schoolhouse, a dignified pile of native sandstone commissioned by the town’s namesake, George Morrison, and commanding the high ground south of downtown. After ordering the comings and goings of local schoolchildren for 76 years, the bell’s strident clarion call was silenced in 1955, when the ancient schoolhouse was abandoned in favor of the newly christened Red Rocks Elementary School.

With that, the bell’s proud tale grows temporarily — and perhaps fortunately — vague. Removed from the ancient schoolhouse with nobody’s sanction and under circumstances that won’t easily bear close examination, it eventually resurfaced where dispossessed bells in this part of the world usually did — in the loving hands of Evergreen resident Winston Jones, curator of the International Bell Museum on Upper Bear Creek and master of the largest bell collection this side of anywhere.

And that’s where it remained — just a few miles upstream of its old address and, for the most part, completely forgotten — until the summer of 2006, when Winston died, bequeathing his beloved bells to his beloved alma mater, Hastings College in Nebraska. When a crew from the Hastings College Foundation showed up to collect the vast assemblage, longtime Morrison worthy Dan Rohrer was waiting for them.

“This would never have started without Dan,” says Smith. “2006 was the centennial of Morrison’s incorporation, and Dan thought we should get the bell for it. He knew if we didn’t catch it before it left Evergreen, we might never get it, so he went up to Evergreen and got it. The foundation people were really great about the whole thing. They basically loaned it to us for the Centennial Day celebration. I think every kid in town rang the bell at least once that day.”

Turns out, Rohrer was taking a longer view of the situation than he originally let on, and he quickly persuaded local officials to grant the wayfaring school bell immediate and permanent resident status. Following a leisurely season of friendly, low-impact haggling, the town of Morrison purchased the sentiment-laden antique for a shade over $1,300. Piece of cake, right?

“When you buy a big bell, that’s not the end of it,” Smith laughs. “It’s just the beginning.”

First, the town’s public works department had the dubious privilege of stripping 130 years of encrusted history from the bell’s once-bright surface, and then there was the question of how best to display it.

“We included a notice in everybody’s water bill asking for suggestions, and we got a lot of really good ideas.”

And, of course, a few less-good ones. The old schoolhouse, as stately as ever, is a private residence now, so that was out. Some thought to enshrine the bell in the Red Rocks Elementary School lobby in recognition of its educational background, a notion others deemed a rank injustice on the grounds that it was R-1 that put the bell out of a job in the first place. Many pushed the Veterans Memorial on the west end of town as an apt location but were overruled by vets who, while sympathetic to the cause, preferred not to dilute the striking memorial’s good purpose.

“It needed to go somewhere it could be easily seen and appreciated, but where people couldn’t easily get at it,” Smith explains diplomatically. “We get a pretty fair bar crowd on the weekends, and we don’t need people sharing their party with the whole town every night after the bars close down. I’ve heard that bell, and it’s loud.”

While debate quietly raged, municipal sign codes were consulted for what small guidance they could offer, and Jim Gill, a Morrison engineer with offices in Kittredge, calculated what manner of carriage would be necessary to sustain the 240-pound artifact.

“The bell was just sitting on the floor in the town offices the whole time,” Smith says. “Everybody had to walk around it for two years.”

In the end, a more suitable site could hardly have been found than the one ultimately chosen — the Bear Creek Trail bridge immediately behind the T & T Restaurant.

“It’s perfect because it’s right in the middle of the historic downtown area,” Smith says. “Almost everybody in town uses that part of the trail at some point, and it’s also highly visible for visitors. The Lariat Loop interpretive kiosk is right there, and so is the big mural of Morrison’s town history.”

Still, finding your dream house and moving into it are two different things. To fund the installation, Morrison looked, once more, to its citizenry.

“We put another note in the water bills and asked people to donate whatever they could. The response was amazing.”

Finally, Smith put hanging the bell into the capable hands of Ed Bischoff, owner of Zuni Sign Co. in Evergreen — a reasonable compromise, as there is no “Zuni Bell-Hanging Co.” listed in the phone book.

“We’d never done anything quite like that before, but I went down, took a look, and came up with some suggestions,” Bischoff says. “The job had some unusual features, since the bell wouldn’t be attached to a building or post. The trick was achieving a balance between strength and visual effect. We decided to go with a rolled-steel arch, which would produce the smallest, strongest and most aesthetically pleasing result.”

It was the right call, as any number of cyclists, joggers and strollers will attest. High above the broad path — “High enough so bikers don’t ring the bell with their head,” says Smith — the Morrison school bell now floats serenely atop a graceful steel span — slender, sturdy, beautiful, and modest enough to yield the stage to its celebrated burden.

“We’re really happy with it, but we’re mostly just glad to have the bell back in Morrison,” says Smith. “It’s a part of the town’s heritage, and this is where it belongs.”

Jones’ bell collection under review

In the almost three years since Winston Jones’ remarkable bell collection left Evergreen, about 20 of his prized “ding-dongs” — mostly large “outdoor” specimens — have found renewed celebrity in appreciative communities across the West. This year, the Hastings College Foundation has taken significant strides toward ensuring the nearly 8,000 remaining bells enjoy the pride of place they so richly deserve.

“We have begun the process of unpacking and sorting the ‘indoor’ bells,” says Bill Asbury, the foundation’s executive director. “Last week I was on campus setting up initial displays in the president’s office, the Barrett Alumni Center and the Perkins Library. We also plan to display some of the indoor collection in the French Memorial Chapel and art department.”

And, one day soon, Winston’s beloved bells will offer fortunate young scholars far more than timeless beauty and historical interest.

“We plan to sell more bells, without jeopardizing the integrity of the collection,” Asbury explains. “Proceeds from the sale of bells will be used to endow a Hastings College scholarship in Winston’s memory.”