A prairie school bell that likely summoned children to class in the early 1900s in western Hennepin County has been stolen from the shoreline of a homeowner, and there's a $500 reward being dangled for the historic artifact's safe recovery.

The 200-pound piece of local history was lifted, literally, from a hillside behind the Lake Sarah home of Brad Spencer in Independence sometime in late February, police said Monday.

Spencer said he noticed the bell was missing when he went down to the shore to burn some brush. He also saw two sets of footprints in the snow leading to the lake ice. From there, Spencer surmised, the duo would have had to load the bell onto some sort of vehicle to make a getaway on the snow-free ice surface.

"And they came back for the [metal] cradle" that houses the bell, Spencer said, suggesting to him that the thieves were motivated to sell or display it, rather than scrapping it.

"Sadly, it will never ring over Lake Sarah again," said Spencer, who sits on the Independence City Council.

Spencer took ownership of the bell, 26 inches in diameter, 10 years ago. He restored it and researched its history. He estimates the bell's value at $2,000 to $3,000.

"But obviously," he added, "this thing is completely irreplaceable."

Spencer said his research indicates that the bell was made of steel, tin and other metals by the Blymyer Norton & Co. of Cincinnati in the late 1800s.

Most likely, Spencer found, the bell was rung at Wagner School, which held classes from 1880 to 1921.

"The Wagner School appears to be the only school which fits our time line," according to a historical account compiled by Spencer.

Later in the 1920s, the bell summoned hotel guests to dinner at Anderson's Inn and also alerted people on the lake to approaching bad weather, Spencer determined.

Anyone with information that could lead to the bell's return and any arrests is urged to call West Hennepin Public Safety at 763-479-0500.