Bell cast in mid-1800s returns home

By Rebecca Kanable
News Editor - Milton Courier

Members of the Studebaker family pictured above, front row (from left): Jackie Studebaker (daughter) and Carol Studebaker. Back row: standing Harry “Marty” Jr. Studebaker (son), Aaron Studebaker (grandson), and Cole Studebaker (grandson) were glad to see the bell back at Main Hall. Carol Studebaker had the winning bid for the bell in an 1982 auction. Carol Studebaker attended Milton College and her late husband, Harry Studebaker, collected bells.

If bells could talk, the bell cast in the mid-1800s that hung in the Gent’s Hall and the bell tower of Main Hall of Milton College would have quite a few stories to tell. 

One of the stories it could tell would be its exact age. Historical accounts and newspaper reports of when the bell was cast vary. The iconic symbol of Milton College is the 800-pound bell made of alloyed metals, steel, copper and silver. It is said to have musical tones. An article in the Milton College Review said, “In it contained all the tradition, all the hope, fear of every Milton student who heard its soft, musical tones.” Students, however, did not always share that sentiment, particularly not early in the morning, when they would have preferred to remain sleeping and unawakened by the bell. Prior to the arrival of electric clocks, the bell would ring every 45 minutes and at 6, 7 and 7:40 a.m. and at 7 p.m. curfew. In 1860, a homesick Milton College student wrote to her sister: “You ought to come visit here and stay overnight. You would wake up in the morning all of a sudden by ‘the bell’ ringing at 5 o’ clock. It is so near to us and I get so tired of hearing it.”

In addition to waking students, the bell announced the Milton College Wildcats had won a game and was used to commemorate other events. For alumni, the sound of the bell was a welcoming home.

Alumni today continue to sing its praises. The “Song of the Bell” by Lester C. Randolph (1864-1918) was considered the school song, as was a song called “Our Colors.” The “Song of the Bell” chorus says “O, I hear the echoes ringing from the belfry ’neath the hill, And the song inspires my heart to do and dare; Calling me to love and duty, calling me to faith and prayer, For the bell is ringing, ringing, ringing still.” The chorus often is followed by the wiping of tears.

When the Gent’s Hall was torn down, the bell moved to the bell tower added in the 1867 Main Hall expansion.

THE WINNING BID

After the college closed in 1982, the bell became one of 1,500 lots (items or groups of items) that were auctioned. People from all over the country were drawn to the event and proceeds from the auction were used to reduce the debt of the college. Milton resident Carol Studebaker, who had the highest bid for the bell, remembers, “it was quite a day.” She bid $650. “I decided that bell was going to stay in Milton,” she said during a phone interview last week. “I didn’t want it to go to Milwaukee or someplace else.” When asked how many people bid against her, she said “quite a few” or at least that’s what it seemed like, she said. An old newspaper article refers to her as a bell collector, but it was actually her husband, Harry, who collected bells.

Carol’s interest in the bell was personal. “It’s always been part of our lives,” she said. She attended Milton College for two years, her parents went to Milton College, her son and daughter attended art classes in Whitford Hall and her daughter took piano lessons at the college.

In 1982, Carol wrote a letter to the editor, which appeared in The Milton Courier: “Our family has enjoyed the art shows and the plays that have been presented there and we often used the college library.” She describes sitting in the Daland Fine Arts Building for two days that week watching Milton College being taken apart piece by piece and sold to people from all over the United States. The bell, she said, is the center of the history and heritage of Milton College and also of Milton. She concluded her letter saying, “We’re keeping the bell safe for the city until someone provides a proper place to display it.”

When the Studebakers brought the bell home, it was covered with layers of pigeon dung. They took it to Riverside Plating in Janesville for cleaning.

MEMORIES

Many have memories of Milton College and of the bell, and many are one and the same. Ropes and clappers wore out; the bell itself did not. In 1937 the Gazette News Service reported, “The years may come and the years may go, but the Milton College bell rings forever.” In all its years of service, the bell never missed a day of class.

It did, however, witness its share of shenanigans.

The clapper once “went missing” and was later found under the open Bible on the desk of the Rev. W.C. Whitford.

In the early 1900s bell ringer Charley Bond mistakenly rang the bell at 1:30 a.m. instead of 6 a.m.

One winter, the bell froze upside down.

A student with the initials W.C. who planned to graduate in 1920 carved his initials and graduation year in a beam that holds the bell. It was not unusual for parties to take place in the bell tower. That likely was when the initial carving took place.

In 1913, sophomores hauled carpets and rugs up to the bell tower and wired the room with electricity so they could have light and electric toasters.

THE BELL ‘RINGS ON’

In 2007, the Milton 4th of July parade theme paid tribute to the 150th anniversary of Main Hall: “Remembering Milton College – the Bell Still Rings.” The bell appeared in the parade and was loaned to the Milton College Preservation Society for display until 2013. The bell then was removed from Main Hall at the request of Harry Studebaker and taken to an unknown location. In 2014, a car crash took Harry’s life and injured Carol.

In January 2015, Carol located the bell and wanted to donate the bell to Main Hall. The bell returned to Main Hall on March 13, 2015. In honor of the bell’s return, the Milton College Preservation Society will replicate a 1955 fundraiser by Milton College President Percy Dunn. In 1955, the bell “rang out gaily over the community as though it could never stop.” For 10 minutes, the bell sang its song – a song of praise of the alumni of the 111-year-old institution who answered the challenge of Dunn. The bell was rung for every $5 collected to close the gap between income and expenditures that year. Individuals who answered Dunn’s challenge numbered 206 and brought in $1,542. A newspaper article says the response was phenomenal, especially since more than 400 alumni had already given $9,600 during the year.

On June 7 of this year, the opening day of the Main Hall Museum this season, MCPS will host “A Bell of a Welcome Home” reception. While the original bell is in an exhibit room, a replacement bell hangs in the bell tower. The bell now in the Main Hall belfry was cast in 1871 and put in place in 1988. The bell will be rung once for each $5 collected. Those who attend the reception will be allowed to ring the bell. Hours will be 1 to 4 p.m. In addition to the fundraiser, collection boxes will be placed in area businesses to collect funds for MCPS.

The mission statement of MCPS is “to preserve Milton College historic memorabilia and records and to maintain Main Hall as a museum of Milton College history.”

As for the bell, Carol Studebaker said, “It’s a symbol of Milton College. I am just so glad it’s back where it belongs.”

MCPS administrator/curator Judy Scheehle said, “We’re grateful to have the bell back – it means a lot to a lot of people.”

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