Monday, March 20, 2023

Sandpoint's bell is home at last

Hagadone News Network | May 23, 2021 1:00 AM

SANDPOINT — As a flatbed truck drove onto the grass at Lakeview Park carrying its precious cargo, a small crowd cheered and broke into applause.

Sandpoint's bell was home.

"We are not just observing history at this moment, we are making history," Karin Wedemeyer, director of the Music Conservatory of Sandpoint, said. "It's fantastic. You know, it's really joyous."

To have the bell home, to see it come across the field, was a moment of pure joy, said Wedemeyer, who along with MCS board members and staff, had begun searching for it after learning of its existence during research on their new home.

"It's really, really wonderful," Wedemeyer said of the bell's return home. "It's just amazing. And what I also really love is how it brings people together. And that is going to be the community aspect. I think of this bell, when, when it will go up, and it will go up. I promise you."

The bell's return home was meant to be, Wedemeyer said.

"If I look at all the things that had to happen, it's almost beyond coincidence," she said. "It has its own will and we just need to step aside."

The bell's journey home is a tale 70 years in the making.

Sold in 1951 when Sandpoint city fathers felt the bell was no longer needed, it was purchased by a bell collector and carted out of town. Its existence faded from the memory of most and it wasn't until Music Conservatory of Sandpoint board members and staff asked Heather Upton, executive director of the Bonner County History Museum, to help them research their new home's history.

The conservatory had purchased the one-time Sandpoint City Hall and wanted to honor its history as they worked to restore the 109-year-old building. The museum, which is partnering with MCS by providing historical research as the conservatory embarks on renovations, began extensive research on the structure.

Upton told MCS officials that at one time there had been a cupola and fire bell atop the building. The consensus was immediately — if the bell survived, it needed to come home.

For decades, the only clues that the bell was still around were found in rumors.

While some said the bell had been sold for scrap, others were certain the bell had found a new home in the Spokane area. But prior to its rediscovery at an Spokane Valley antiques shop, however, the bell's location was a mystery.

All MCS and museum officials knew for certain was that the bell had been sold in roughly 1951. After a story was published in the Daily Bee, the phone started ringing with tips on the bell's possible whereabouts.

Then longtime museum volunteer and former board member Bob Camp walked in with a mysterious, somewhat mischievous grin. It wasn't long before Camp had called up Google Maps and was zeroing in on something large, bronze-colored and bell-shaped.

The what? A large brass bell. The where? Way Out West Antiques in Spokane Valley where it was the prized possession of owner Mike Ferguson.

Camp had been tipped off to the bell's possible location 12 years ago. However, when Camp and fellow researcher Bill Fulton followed up on the tip, Ferguson wasn't interested in selling at the time. He had purchased the bell from the family of the bell collector who had bought the bell from the city.

"If he was going to sell it, he said it would be over $6,000," Camp said Friday after the bell had been installed in an outside cement exhibit pad. "At the time, the museum didn't even have 60 bucks."

But was it Sandpoint's bell? That was the question. Within three days, the museum's researchers — led by Hannah Combs, Dan Evans, Bob Camp, Jim Watts and Will Valentine — were 95 percent certain it was the city's missing bell.

(It later took intricate mathematics involving a Ross Hall photo showing the bell's clapper and detailed measurements to push the certainty to 100 percent.)

However, in the meantime, confident they had found the bell, Upton contacted Wedemeyer, who had been on her way to Costco when she got Upton's call. With the news that researchers were confident it was THE bell, Wedemeyer instead drove to Spokane Valley and bought the bell.

At the time Sandpoint originally purchased the bell, City Hall housed the police station, jail, and fire station, including stables for the horses that pulled the fire engine, Upton said.

"The bell was originally intended as a fire signal," she said. "Twenty-seven locations throughout the city each had a unique alarm that would toll from the bell to alert residents and firefighters of the fire’s general location."

In addition, the bell had a number of other uses, including serving as a curfew signal for children to head home. In the early days, that meant 8 p.m. in winter and 9 p.m. in summer, with curfew being extended to 10 p.m. The bell also rang for special events and celebrations such as the ending of the first and second world wars.

Having the bell back is a completion of what was started in 2011 when he and Fulton made the first trek to the Spokane Valley. "It's pretty neat [that it's back home," Camp said.

A celebration concert is planned for June 5, where the bell will take center stage. The opening notes of a bell symphony have been written and, as a fundraiser, the community can buy additional notes. In addition, the museum is hosting a First Free Saturday event, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. and sponsored by Beth Craven.

The celebration will center around the bell and the community will have a chance to hear it ring, Upton said.



Karin Wedemeyer, director of the Music Conservatory of Sandpoint, gives the city of Sandpoint's historic fire bell a welcome pat home.

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