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West Fork School Bell: Lost, Recovered, Remembered

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July 28, 2010 by wcobserver

West Fork City Manager Michael “Butch” Bartholomew stands with the bell from the West Fork School building Monday, which now sits in the main lobby of City Hall. Butch recovered the bell in 1989 after it had been stolen and thrown in a well in 1935 and now displays it in City Hall and one day hopes to put it in a museum for the town.

Most people probably don’t know the history of the 1935 disappearance of the West Fork school bell, which was originally housed at the current day Boston Mountain Educational Cooperative located at 363 McKnight Ave., but today we are revealing what really happened 75 years ago.

I sat down with West Fork City Manager Butch Bartholomew, who was sworn to secrecy 20 years ago about the identity of the “bell-robbers.”  He has faithfully kept that promise but agreed to share the story with me, minus a few names.  In 1935, three schoolboys, “looking for entertainment” and with little else to do, thought it would be fun to steal their school’s bell.  Back then, the railroad had a huge pile of sand by the tracks, near the downtown strip.  The boys thought, “What a perfect hiding place;” until they were ready to return the bell to the school, of course.  It turned out no one thought this little prank was very funny.  “People were upset and they were making threats about what they’d do if the bell wasn’t returned,” Butch said smiling. “Well, that scared the boys,” so they dug the bell out of the sand and dropped it down a water well that was still in use at the time.

Fifty years later, Butch, who was the city’s Water Superintendent at the time, became friends with a gentleman who had gone to school in West Fork back in the 30’s.  He had moved off to California and returned to the area to retire.  “He was the nicest guy; he was thoughtful, courteous, and kind,” not at all what you would think of a person that would steal anything.  “You have to understand, they didn’t have the things to do that we have these days.  They were just looking to have some fun.”  The man had no idea the trouble it would cause when they stole the bell, and the older he got, the more the man wanted to tell someone what really happened.

In 1989, Butch got a phone call from his friend confirming that he was one of the three schoolboys who had stolen the bell.  Butch wanted to recover the bell so his friend revealed the location, but made him promise not to tell anyone that he had stolen it as a child.  The man believed there were still a lot of people that would be upset with him, even after so many years.  Butch was initially afraid to tell too many people about it, “for fear of it not really being there or it being damaged.”  Butch and two of his co-workers, Jerry Boyd and Jerry Spillers, began the bell recovery effort in their spare time.  The well, located at 134 Campbell Avenue at the old Factory Canning site, had been out of order for some time, but was still 35ft deep in water when they began.  Their first step was pumping out all of the water and getting down to the bottom; the two Jerrys then went down the 8-ft wide well with ladders.  When they reached the bottom, they could see that the mud was a different color in one spot so they began digging there.  Three feet of mud later, they could see the bell; it appeared through the mud to still be in good condition, bearing only one large crack across the top.

Staff Photographer Brooke McNeely Galligan The school bell was placed on the left side of the school building where “Custard Pie” Baker is standing in 1935. Shortly after this photo was taken the bell was stolen as a prank and recovered in 1989 by Michael “Butch” Bartholomew.

They brought it up but were afraid to use any type of abrasive brush or cleaner on it, so they used their hands to gently wipe away 54 years of mud and cleaned it with a garden hose.  Rather than attempting to restore the bell, Butch opted to use a spray sealant on it, in order to keep it in its current state.  The bell, which is currently on display at City Hall, is certainly a sight to see, and knowing the history makes it all the better.  “History has a direct effect on our future,” Butch said of this and other town artifacts.  His hopes are to one day have a museum near City Hall to house the bell and many other pieces of West Fork history.  It’s said that everything has a story to tell and this bell is no exception; it tells of adolescents, small town pride, and an elderly man wanting to make right his past wrongs before it was too late.  I was able to hear this nearly one hundred year old bell ring and with it rang history, memories, and tales of long ago.

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