I love research. I feel like a detective sifting through the clues of history to find the answer to a question about stories that have been long forgotten.
So, when the University archivist asked me if I had any recollection of seeing information about the Old Main Bell while processing archival collections, I wanted to know more. A campus researcher needed documented evidence that the bell currently located on the Quad was the original bell that hung in Old Main. I quickly offered to take on the quest and find the answer.
Starting with the Campus History Book series, as is often the first step in researching the history of Illinois State University, I discovered that the Old Main Bell had been damaged beyond repair in 1880. In The Grandest of Enterprises, Helen Marshall described the importance of the bell to both the campus and the surrounding community and the silence the loss of the bell left behind.
Marshall’s book led me to the Board of Education Proceedings for May 26, 1880, where I found the report by President Hewett describing the damage to the bell and the necessity of replacing it. The board’s decision was that the issue of the bell and the surrounding clock tower, which was also in need of repair, would be referred to the Committee on Buildings and Grounds.
At the January 19, 1881, meeting of the Board of Education, the Committee on Buildings and Grounds reported that replacing the bell would be postponed until such a time when sufficient funds were available to replace the bell as well as perform the necessary repairs to the tower. They did have a plan, however, to replace the bell with a more modern one that turns at intervals so the clapper strikes the body of the bell in different positions causing less wear to one area. This was considered to be the reason for the damage to the original bell.
In the proceedings for the January 18, 1882, meeting of the Board of Education, President Hewett reported a loss of one-quarter of the legislative appropriations to Illinois State Normal University. Due to this loss of funding, replacing the bell would have to be postponed further. On May 24, 1882, the Committee on Buildings and Grounds informed the board that replacing the bell had been postponed due to the above mentioned loss of funds, but that since then the legislature had reimbursed those funds so the bell could now be replaced. The committee indicated they had figures drawn up and were prepared to move forward. Finally, three years after the loss of the bell, a new bell was hung in Old Main in 1883 as reported in the January 17, 1883, meeting proceedings. Along with informing the board that the bell had been hung, the committee also reported the measurement of the bell and the final cost of $139.33.
This information on the replacement of the original Old Main Bell revealed that the bell currently residing on the Quad could not possibly be the original bell that hung in Old Main when it was completed in 1857. The next question was whether the campus bell was the replacement that hung in Old Main from 1883 until the removal of Old Main’s tower in 1946.
To start my digging on this question, I moved to the Proceedings of the Teachers College Board for 1946. At the July 8, 1946, meeting of the Teachers College Board, President Fairchild related to the board the progress made on removing the tower, roof, and third floor of Old Main which had been deemed structurally unsound. At the October 14, 1946, meeting, President Fairchild reported the completion of the removal of the tower, roof, and third story of Old Main.
The question remains whether the bell on the Quad is the same bell that was removed with the tower in 1946 or if a replica was made to be placed on the Quad to commemorate Old Main. Searching the Teachers College Board proceedings, I discovered that in his report to the board on July 17, 1955, Acting President Larsen stated that the Women’s League and the University Club jointly contributed $553.06 to place the Old Main Bell somewhere on campus. Acting President Larsen also reported that the bell was rung to open Commencement on June 11, 1955.
Now with a date range, I turned to the university newspaper, the Vidette, for more information. On the front page of the Vidette for January 19, 1955, an article explained plans for placing the Old Main Bell on campus. The article reported that many locations were being considered including the newly planned student union (Bone Student Center), the roofs of the Administration Building (Hovey Hall) or McCormick Gymnasium, and the Quad. The proposal had been presented to the Administrative Council, which gave permission for students to make the decision for the location of the bell. An article in the March 2, 1955, edition of the Vidette related that a location had not yet been decided but that a committee had been formed to decide.
Also in the article was a history of the bell contributed by Marshall. In her telling of the history, Marshall revealed that the bell had resided beneath the south steps of Old Main since it was removed in 1946. Finally, in the June 30, 1955, issue of the Vidette, it was reported that the Old Main Bell that had been resting under the steps of Old Main since its removal was rung on June 11, 1955, in honor of that year’s commencement and its move to its new home on the south side of Old Main.
The mystery has been solved. The bell located on the Quad did indeed hang in Old Main, however, it was not the original which was damaged and replaced in the early 1880s. The bell resided in the Old Main tower from its hanging in 1883 to its removal in 1946. Nine years later, it was located to a place of honor just south of Old Main, a building which has since been demolished.
The Old Main Bell now stands as a reminder of the first building established on the campus of Illinois State Normal University.