For Whom the Bell Tolls
While photographing in Lincoln one day early this summer I had an experience that I will never forget - but I couldn't say anything about what transpired at the time it happened!
While photographing old school sites in Logan County, Illinois (where I grew up) I sometimes find remnants of old schools that are no longer there - mainly a brick or a chip from a brick which I take home, clean up and label which school it came from. During the summer months because of heat and crops growing I have put a hold on the photographing of rural schools. I decided since I was doing rural schools I would also include old schools from Lincoln (Monroe, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, etc.) A couple of these schools I attended when I was growing up. While searching the web for information about these schools I found Leigh Henson's site, "Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois", had some neat pictures and good information about Lincoln's old schools. If you go to his site and the section on schools, which is section 33, you will see a lot about old Lincoln Schools. The link is:
If you scroll about 3/4 of the way down the page you will come to a section after the old High School that is titled "Lincoln's Only School on Route 66." This is about Jefferson School, originally built in 1888, with a subsequent addition in 1927. These buildings were demolished in 1966 and the present day school was built on the same location. Henson talks about the old 1888 school bell and shows pictures of it as it is kept today in a case in the foyer of today's Jefferson School. It was with the knowledge of the existence of this bell that I obtained from Henson's site that lead me to stop by Jefferson School one day early this summer. I wanted to get into the foyer of Jefferson School to photograph the bell. When I went by the school I saw the door to the gym was open so I figured the custodian was there working. I parked and walked into the gym where I found the custodian. I told him of my project of photographing old schools. I told him I had seen Henson's picture of the 1888 school bell on-line and was hoping he would take me to the foyer and allow me to photograph it. He told me to follow him. I knew I was in luck for getting to see the old bell in person and the adrenaline started flowing!!
We went back outside the school the same way I had come in. We walked about 50 feet outside the building and he unlocked a door from the outside. It looked like a janitor's closet that you entered from the outside. He said, "There it is." It was on the floor with it's iron housing stand next to it!!! I couldn't believe it!! I asked if it was OK if I photographed it. His response was, "Its yours if you want it." I was speechless, for I realized by his tone of voice that he was serious!! I even commented, "You're serious, aren't you?" He told me that he was instructed by the principal to "get rid of it." I didn't know what to say except that I would take good care of it. We loaded the bell and housing into my Jeep and I took it home. The custodian had asked me not to say anything about how I came into possession of the bell. With the exception of Nancy and my kids I had honored his request until recently!!
Once I got the bell home Dave helped me move into the basement from my Jeep (It is so heavy it takes two people to move it). I mounted the housing onto my workbench and put the bell in it. Before I had started mounted the bell onto my workbench I knew I didn't want it permanently in my basement. Something like this needs to be on public display - like it was at Jefferson School. My first thought was to donate it to the Logan County Genealogical and Historical Society or the Regional Superintendent of Logan County Schools Office. My hang-up has been that I gave my word to the custodian about keeping quiet about the bell. How could I tell the Regional Superintendent or LCGHS about the bell without involving Jefferson School, the custodian, or principal? How was I going to explain that this bell came into my possession without involving them?
I decided I needed to contact the custodian or principal and tell them of my plans for donating the bell. I went by the school a couple times during the summer while photographing but the custodian was not there and the school was locked up. I waited until school started and went to the principal's office hoping to talk to her. I was told by the school secretary that she was at an all-day workshop. I told the secretary who I was and that I had the the Jefferson School bell and what I wanted to do with the it. She told me that she agreed that it should be on public display but it was causing problems at Jefferson with amount of room it took up. She took my name and phone number and told me the principal would call me - after three weeks of not hearing from her I tried to contact her again!
The Jefferson secretary told me she was at another school when I requested to speak with her. So I went to the other school and contacted her. After telling her who I was and how I had come into possession of the bell she seemed clueless about what I was telling her. It turned out that she was a first year principle and had no knowledge of the bell or its removal from the foyer of Jefferson School. She had no problems with me trying to find a home for the bell.
The first place I went in search of a home for the bell was the Lincoln Public Library, which was built in 1910. It is a beautiful building and I thought that having the bell on display there would allow for the public to see a part of the history of Lincoln. The director of the library, after hearing my story on how I acquired the bell and that I wanted it displayed, was very helpful to me in finding a home for the bell. He really liked the idea of displaying it in the library but lack of enough room for a display was a problem. He suggested that I go to the office of the Superintendent of Elementary Schools in Lincoln. They had just moved their offices into a larger facility and should have ample room for displaying the bell.
I contacted the secretary at the Superintendents Office and told her about the bell. She told me the superintendent was not in at the moment but she was sure they would want the bell to put on display in their office. She took my name and phone number and told me she would call after speaking with the superintendent. By the time I returned home to Springfield she had called with a message that they wanted the bell. I called her and made arrangements for taking the bell to their office. She said the bell should have never left the school to begin with! She was so grateful that I wanted to give the bell back to them. A custodian was to be present to help me move the bell from my Jeep to the inside of the building. The custodian turned out to be the same custodian that helped me load the bell into my Jeep at Jefferson School!! He was happy the bell was being brought back and thanked me for returning it. He had apparently been told (by the previous principal) to dispose of the bell because the case was falling apart and they lacked the proper space at Jefferson for displaying the bell. He said he had given it to me on that early summer day because he felt I would be a good caretaker for the bell.
When the bell is put on display I will return to Lincoln to photograph the bell in its display case - something that I had originally tried to do early last summer!!