Copyright 2003 By Bob Hibbs
 Saturday May 31, 2003  

Saturday Postcard 196: Iowa City’s Little Bell-That-Could


The Mechanics Academy is second only to Old Capitol as the most historic local structure. Depicted by this 1854 sketch by pioneer artist George 
Yewell, it also housed the first local bell, proclaiming important public events and summoning firefighters to duty, while disturbing many an ear.



The Presbyterian congregation of Old Stone Church along Burlington Street purchased the first local bell, but when it arrived,
members considered it too small, off key and laughable for use at their new building. The bell landed five blocks
northeast in a decidedly similar Mechanics Academy belfry.


By Bob Hibbs


The best known bell tone in Iowa City during pioneer times was the “shrill, grating summons” issued from atop the Mechanics Academy on Linn Street just north of Iowa Avenue.

Entering life with a manifest destiny of church bell in Iowa City, the offender instead became the bell which summoned the first students to classes for both Iowa City public schools and University of Iowa.

Judging from the disdain it generated, it was a real clunker!

However, this little bell-that-could did its duty in summoning firefighters to their arduous endeavors, and students to classes. It pealed its unheralded tones to announce such events as opening territorial and state legislative sessions between 1845 and 1857.
It greeted arrival of the first railroad in 1855 and mournfully tolled the death of Abraham Lincoln in 1865.

It issued the call in 1856 to battle a blaze which destroyed the predecessor church to Old Brick, the First Presbyterian Church of 1850. From that church belfry disgruntled preacher Michael Hummer had dislodged a more notorious bell only to lose it to parishioners, one of whom eventually sold it to the Mormons in Salt Lake City.

The little clunker stood silently in 1855 while nearby St. Mary’s Catholic Church mistakenly received a gloriously-toned bell intended for Salk City, Wisconsin, and mounted it in a 25-foot-tall tower beside the church only to discover the error and raise a collection to buy another bell for Salk City.

The Mechanics Academy bell witnessed it all! But, its life was humble and thoroughly unappreciated in its day. After seeing it, and hearing its tone, original buyers refused to help pay for it. They laughed at its size; they ridiculed its tone. It suffered disparaging remarks its entire life!

Ungrateful university students filled it with water during a frigid winter night about 1856 that it might freeze solid and forget its tone. They succeeded mostly in changing its name.

This little bell-that-could was ordered in 1845 for the “new school” Presbyterian congregation erecting an edifice along the south side of Burlington Street a half block west of Clinton Street. Members were gleeful over what they perceived a bargain – until the little bell arrived.

Some members thought the size “ridiculously small for a church bell.” Others expressed outrage over its “sharp peremptory tone.” They refused to help pay for it. Talk about gaining no respect!

A replacement home turned up across town (five blocks away) at the Mechanics Academy which had been erected three years earlier with a belfry, but no bell. Talk about a neat coincidence!

So, this little bell-that-could was settled into the Mechanics Academy in 1845 as the first public bell to ring in Iowa City. It served various civic and church groups which found temporary shelter within the academy until permanent homes could be built.

When Iowa City government finally set up shop in 1853, an early order of business for the new city council was to rent the Mechanics Academy to start public schools, later transferred to a separately-elected school board.

When the University of Iowa which was created on paper in 1847 finally got up and running temporarily in 1855, the little bell had a new flock hearing its tollful mourning. But, like the others, they didn’t like it and soon set about expressing objections in a new way.

According to a 1941 county history compiled by a WPA writers project, “a naughty prank” occurred when “one cold night students climbed the belfry, turned the bell mouth up, filled it with water and let it freeze. In the morning no bell rang, and no students went to class.”

Although cracked, this little bell-that-could continued serving town and gown, now nicknamed “Johnson’s Rattle” in deference to the original UI faculty chieftain and the bell’s peremptory cracked tone. It seems to have perished with the rest of the Mechanics Academy in 1897.

Such is the tale of a little Iowa City bell-that-could.

Next Saturday: Chautauqua Time in Iowa City.

Bob Hibbs collects local postcards and researches history related to them.


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