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Western Springs’ School Bell Lives On

Exactly 110 years ago, a 350-pound bell was placed in the cupola of the Grand Avenue School. While it no longer calls children to class, residents can still experience the thrill of ringing the bell.

During the earliest years of the village’s history, there were no radios or telephones to summon volunteer firefighters to the scene of a fire. As a result, a bell tower was built at Grand and Chestnut Avenue, the same corner as the Grand Avenue elementary school. The bell was rung whenever there was a report of a fire. 

By 1903, the village had installed a “modern” fire alarm system. So, the 26-inch, 350-pound bell was removed from its original location and placed inside the stone tower shown to the left in the second photo. The cost to move the bell was a hefty $300 ($7,900 in 2013 dollars). 

There, the bell would ring every morning to summon students to class. However, in 1906 the 20-year-old building was enlarged, resulting in the removal of the bell tower and the addition of a full second floor. To accommodate the bell, a center cupola was added to the roof, above the second floor. See third photo.

According to one account, the sixth graders vied for the honor of ringing the bell. In fact, one former student, James Knowlson, recalled being the “envy of his class” when the janitor paid him $1 a month to ring the bell each day. That “bell ringer” grew up to become the President & Chairman of the Board of the Stewart-Warner Corporation.

After many years of use, the 30-pound clapper had worn so badly that the bell was taken out of service.  However, just prior to the nation’s Bicentennial, the County Line Questers joined forces with the Historical Society to replace the clapper. Soon, a check was presented to the Society to cover the cost of a new one.     

Before the Historical Society could order the new clapper, the school custodian had to go on the roof of the building, climb inside the cupola, and get exact measurements of the 26-inch bell. Then a new clapper was cast by the I.T. Verdin Company of Cincinnati (www.verdin.com), one of the nation’s premier bell manufacturers. After the new clapper was installed, the bell was returned to service in May 1975, ringing every school day at 9 a.m.  See fourth photo.

Due to declining enrollment, Grand Avenue School was closed in 1981 and was subsequently re-purposed as the Grand Avenue Community Center. While the bell no longer calls children to school, it is still fully functional. Hidden away in a 2nd floor closet is a huge knotted rope which goes through the ceiling to the building’s cupola. When pulled, it makes the clapper strike the bell, creating a loud, distinct “bong”. See fifth photo.

If you’re a former Grand Avenue student or just an interested resident, you can join the exclusive ranks of previous “bell ringers” by just stopping by the Historical Society Archives on the second floor of the Grand Avenue Community Center. We’re open every Tuesday between 9 a.m. and Noon.

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