Bell may date to 1887
A school bell that may date to 1887—when the first brick school house was built in Pelican Rapids—will be on permanent display by autumn 2021.
A proposal to hang the bell near the entrance to the new high school gym was outlined at the Feb. 1 school board meeting.
The bell was essentially rescued from the high school roof at the time of the demolition of old 1929 auditorium in 2014.
Not only will the fixture serve as a historic remnant of Pelican’s earliest years; the placement will be framed between two maple trees planted in honor of late Superintendent Ed Richardson. The school and community mourned the untimely death of Richardson in April of 2020, less than a year since the Pelican graduate was promoted from elementary principal to superintendent.
“This will be a summer project,” said Trevor Steeves, who will construct the bell’s framework with his buildings and ground crew. With the in-house labor, the project is expected to cost only $2,500—including a protective powder coating.
The framework, bell and tree arrangement will be on the southeast corner of the high school campus. It will be another feature to enhance the Al Siegle Activities Center, which is the new gym and athletic facility.
Steeves has been dabbling with idea for a couple years, ever since the school renovations and expansion.
While it can’t be determined with 100 percent certainty now more than 130 years later, it seems highly likely it is the school’s original bell. The bell weighs approximately 300 pounds.
There are no casting identifying marks on the bell itself. Exact dating from a manufacturer is probably impossible, but those who are familiar with the bell believe it was placed on the roof over the course of several construction projects, and more or less forgotten.
The late Cecil Femling, age 94 at the time of the new construction, said that when he started as a freshman at Pelican in 1935, the bell was on top of the school approximately where it sits today.
He doubted that it was a country school bell that was brought in and put on the roof. Femling was confident it is the original bell. Femling recalled the bell ringing a few times in the mid 1930s, but largely wasn’t used.
The Pelican schools have a long history of renovations and additions. The first schools in the 1870s were log and then wood slab structures in several places and then in 1879 relocated where St Leonard’s Catholic Church sits today. The original brick school, which presumably included the bell, was built in 1887. In 1899, 4 rooms were added to the school. 1912 saw the district rent space at the Village Hall to alleviate overcrowding.
In 1916, another building was built to the south of the original and was used as the high school. The auditorium was added in 1929 along the north side of the original brick building. There was also a gym and classrooms connecting the original school to the 1916 building. It seems likely that at that time, the bell tower was removed and the bell placed on top of the connecting addition. 1953 saw the addition of the McAurthur Elementary addition to the south that would serve as elementary school until 1962 when the current elementary was built.
Femling said he started school at the District #244 in Star Lake Township, which had a school bell. He said the bell at that country school was rung at 8 a.m. to signify school was open and would start soon. At 8:30, the bell rang again to warn kids that they had better hustle to school as school was about to start in a few minutes. At recess, he said they would give the bell one ding to let kids know it was time to come in.
“We used to throw rocks at it to see if we could ring it,” recalled Femling.
On close inspection, the bell has had few visitors over the years—with the exception of the classes of 1990 and 1981 that left their mark with white spray paint. It is doubtful they rang the bell so as not to bring attention to themselves in their prank. The clapper of the bell, the part that rings the bell inside, was turned to the side so as not to swing, preventing it from ringing.
In 2014, while inspecting the bell, Daren Tollefson, a custodian at PRHS, turned the clapper and gave it a quick ring. It was probably the first ring of the bell since the 1930s.
Editor’s note: Much of the background in the school bell article was researched and written by C.J. Holl, in 2014, for the Pelican Rapids Press.