Copyright 2003 By Bob Hibbs
 Saturday July 12, 2003 

Saturday Postcard 202: Mechanics Academy Victory Bell

Del Gilmore, a bell hobbyist, poses with the 1844 Mechanics Academy bell at its current storage spot in the 
basement of the new University of Iowa sports museum at Mormon Trek and Melrose Avenue in western Iowa City. 
It was the first UI bell, but never hung in Old Capitol.

The 1842 Mechanics Academy building where UI first held classes in 1855 was the second home for the subject bell. 
The bell was originally purchased by an early Presbyterian congregation for its “Old Stone Church” on Burlington Street.

By Bob Hibbs

The little bell that could survives!

The historic bronze is probably the oldest surviving bell ever to sound in Iowa City. It was forged in New York City in 1844 and originally served the First Constitutional Presbyterian Church of Iowa City at its 1845 “Old Stone Church” along the south side of Burlington Street a half-block west of Clinton.


Some in the congregation thought it “ridiculously small” at 22 inches for a church bell. Some complained that it had a “sharp preemptory tone,” even “shrill.” These were adherents to a group that had broken off from the main national body of Presbyterian churches over organizational issues to form a “new school” organization.


The choice of name had been a rebuff of the already established and still surviving “old school” First Presbyterian Church, the group which completed Old Brick in 1865 after its predecessor building burned in 1856.


The “constitutional” group disintegrated in 1865; their “Old Stone Church” was sold in 1866 and demolished not long after 1905. For a time the old church housed the State Historical Society of Iowa.


A decade before breaking up, the contentious Presbyterian group sold its bell to a nascent University of Iowa in 1855 as UI was transforming itself from an 1847 paper institution into one actually offering classes. UI held its first class in March 1855 in the Mechanics Academy building.


University trustee minutes for April 4, 1855, show $76.45 paid to the Presbyterians.  Prather & Ealy, an early local contractor, received $9 to move the bell about six blocks from the Presbyterian belfry to the empty belfry of the 1842 Mechanics Academy located along the east face of Linn Street a half block north of Iowa Avenue.


The 125-pound bell heralded students to class and earned their disdain as it had their Presbyterian predecessors. According to a tale from a 1940 WPA writers’ county history, students pulled “a naughty prank” of turning the bell upside down, filling it with water and allowing it to freeze on a winter’s night.


The WPA history reports that “Johnson’s rattle,” a mock deference to the first UI instructor, didn’t ring the next morning, and no classes were held. However, the WPA work also reports the bell was cracked by the prank, which is clearly not correct, although three chips have been sustained through 159 years of existence.


Cracks destroy a bell’s tone, but chips cause little change, explains Del Gilmore, a local retiree who has become a widely-recognized authority on bells as a retirement hobby. He helped locate the replacement bell for Old Capitol after its long-serving bell was destroyed in a 2001 fire.


Gilmore’s research efforts have unraveled the histories of the bells of Old Capitol, as well as helping establish the history of the little Mechanics Academy bell that could.


Despite reports to the contrary, the Mechanics Academy bell never hung in Old Capitol. It went into storage with demolition of the Mechanics Academy in 1896, but surfaced during the mid-20th century as a “Victory Bell” at university sporting events.


A December 1945 University of Iowa News Bulletin carries a story headlined: “‘Victory’ Bell Becomes New University of Iowa Tradition.” Historic details in the article are hopelessly confused, but it does provide the sports connection.


The attempted “new tradition” came at a time of increasing efforts to market sporting events; but, this twist failed and the little bell went back into storage, for some time in the basement of Kinnick Stadium. With opening last year of the UI sports museum in western Iowa City, the bell was moved into storage in its basement.


As 125 pounds of scrap metal it is worth about $300; as a bell without a history it is worth perhaps $5,000, Gilmore guesses. Its value as a historic piece is incalculable.


Next Saturday: The Black Angel of Oakland Cemetery.

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

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