At a recent meeting of the Nicollet County Historical Society, the executive director made mention of an old, rather large bell of mysterious origin that was in its collection and perhaps due for exhibit.
Hearing this, volunteer Eileen Holz said she immediately wondered: Could it be THAT bell?
That’s how the mystery of the St. Peter bell began. And before it would be solved, it would touch on history, tragedy, family lore, town gossip, a thrilling discovery and a second, enduring mystery.
Such are the ways of old things.
“It’s a pretty neat old bell,” said Jessica Becker, executive director of the Historical Society, which makes its home at the Treaty Site History Center.
Holz said she wondered the day of the meeting whether the bell could be the one spirited away from the St. Peter Arts and Heritage Center, one of several buildings destroyed on March 29, 1998, when the town took a direct hit from an F3 tornado.
Holz had heard from a reliable source that the bell was seen in the rubble of the center, a former school that used a large bell to announce the start of classes.
“The next day, when one of our maintenance men went to save it, it was gone,” said Holz.
Perhaps it had been stolen or simply taken for safekeeping. Now, with a chance to examine the unidentified bell at the Historical Society, Holz was on the case.
She first examined the bell and found it had three cracks, one of which ran through the name of the bell’s apparent manufacturer, Henry McShane. It also read, with a crack between the letters L and M, “BAL MORE MD 86,,” leading Holz to deduce that it had been manufactured in Baltimore.
A few online searches later, she found the McShane Bell Foundry of Glen Burnie, Md., a company in operation since 1856. Many phone calls and e-mails later, she connected to a foundry employee who dug through records and confirmed that a McShane bell had been sold to Philip Dick, a member of the St. Peter school board, for $17.50 in 1886.
“I was thrilled,” Holz said of her discovery.
The bell was shipped by rail along with 65 feet of rope and installed in St. Peter’s first Lincoln School, built in 1886 for $6,560. It burned down in 1913, and a second Lincoln School was built on the same site. That school was torn down in 1967.
With the provenance of the bell now coming into view, Holz was left wondering how it came to the Historical Society. An alert reporter from the Mankato Free Press picked up on the story and published an account last week with a photo of the bell. St. Peter resident Steve Scholl said he recognized it immediately.
“I was rather surprised,” he said, peering at the photo of the bell that had been in his yard for years. His grandfather had been the one who recovered it from the second Lincoln school just before demolition. Then his father had it, and finally Scholl had it hanging on a wooden frame.
“It would hurt your ears, it was that loud,” he said. Four or five years ago, he called the Historical Society and told someone there he would donate it. Somehow the bell was placed in storage without any identifying information, awaiting the day when it would send Eileen Holz off on an investigative caper.
“It’s all cleared up now,” said Scholl.
Holz ruminated on the phone with a reporter last week. If the newly discovered bell was from the Lincoln School, what became of the Arts and Heritage Center bell that had been seen in the tornado rubble?
“I’m really hoping that it surfaces someplace intact, and not in a copper ingot someplace,” she said.