Mrs. Bell Comes Home

Lemon Grove School District's original school bell makes her final journey.

In 1894 Mrs. Bell came by train from a foundry in Ohio to the National City depot.  Then she was taken by wagon to Lemon Grove -- which wouldn't get its train depot until 1895 -- for installation in Lemon Grove's first schoolhouse, a one-room, clapboard charmer with a bell tower near the corner of Main and Central.

On Mar. 12, 2013 at 11 a.m., when Mrs. Bell was gently lifted by forklift and cherry picker into the beautiful bell tower of the new Lemon Grove Library on the corner of Lincoln and School Lane -- just across the avenue from her first home -- her 119-year life came full circle.

She had come home at last.  A little dusty, needing a bit more velvety black paint, but home.   And when her installation team swung the clapper, we heard the sound of history ringing.  

In 1893 when the Lemon Grove School District was founded by a group of citrus growers, there were just 15 pupils.  Briefly, before the one-room schoolhouse was acquired, they sat on hay bales in William Hurst's barn on Central Avenue near Cypress Street for their lessons.

The town grew and a second school, a handsome, two-story "castle" style structure with a crenelated cornice, was built in 1908 on the corner of Main and Central.  Mrs. Bell was moved into her new tower to ring for some 60 pupils.

The castle schoolhouse was demolished in 1924 when the new Lemon Grove Grammar School was built on the corner of Lincoln and School Lane.  About 165 pupils heard Mrs. Bell ring for morning classes.

In the 1970s the old grammar school and its three lovely arches rising above the front steps, where so many children had stood for their class pictures, was torn down and taken to the dump.  But not Mrs. Bell.

Her knight in shining armor was the school's industrial arts teacher, Mr. Van Zanten, who knew a thing or two about craftsmanship and history.  He liked the 250-pound, cast iron bell with its classic proportions and yoke, halter and wheel for the bell rope.  He put Mrs. Bell on his truck and took her to his historic, Queen Anne Victorian home in El Cajon and placed her on a wishing well in the back yard. 

There she sat for nearly three decades.

In May, 2002 at Lemon Grove Old Time Days, the Lemon Grove Historical Society was running its usual information booth replete with old photographs like the 1908 schoolhouse.  

One visitor told Pete Smith, the Historical Society's photo archivist, "I know where your school bell is."

She thought the name started with V or Z.  Helen Ofield started cold-calling names in phone books.  Bingo.  On the eighth try, Mrs. Van Zanten, about 83, picked up the phone.  Yes, she would be glad to return the bell as her children didn't want it and she couldn't care for it any longer.  Yes, we could come the next day and remove it.

Escorted by Pete and Helen, Mrs. Bell traveled by trailer to Gary Elbert's garage at the historic Treganza cottage on Kempf Street for safekeeping for two months.  She was taken to a sandblaster in Santee to have her weathered complexion renewed, then taken to Tom and Dona Clabby's garage on Angelus Avenue for storage and priming.

Mrs. Bell arrived at the Parsonage Museum early in 2003 for display as part of the exhibit, "The Story of the Lemon Grove School District."  When the exhibit ended, she was stored in the closet under the museum stairs.

By 2011, with the development of the new Lemon Grove Library and its bell tower in full swing and with the blessing of school superintendent Ernest Anastos and Thomas Remensperger, principal in Legacy Building Services, the design-build team that conceived the library, Mrs. Bell was placed on a school district truck and taken to room 10 at Lemon Grove Middle School, where Helen gave her a coat of black paint to prepare her for her coming debut.

On Nov. 30, 2011 at the gala groundbreaking for the new library and Lemon Grove Academy for the Sciences & Humanities, Mrs. Bell sat resplendent, reunited with throngs of friends and well wishers.  Children sang, dignitaries spoke, bell-shaped cookies were served and the sun shone on Mrs. Bell.

Then she went back to room 10 to await her greatest moment.  It came this morning thanks to David Gardner, project manager for Legacy Building; Ken Fine, school district manager for the project; the indefatigable Ernest Anastos; school photographer Barbara Martinez; and skilled construction workers--the people who "built the pyramids."

Also on hand were her old friends, Rosemary Putnam of the Friends of the Lemon Grove Library, Tom and Dona Clabby, and your correspondent.  Our cup runneth over.

This is a Lemon Grove story.

Mark & Anne Stapleton March 13, 2013 at 08:01 PM
Wonderful piece of history. Thank you, Helen!
Jennifer Lynn Mendoza March 13, 2013 at 10:04 PM
Love the story. Can't wait to hear Mrs. Bell ringing out to call a new generation of children to their classes.
Helen Ofield March 13, 2013 at 10:44 PM
Dear Friends, Mrs. Bell will ring again. There is also a carillon installed on the northeast corner of tower dome that will play in tones similar to our resonant lady.
John King March 14, 2013 at 04:19 PM
Just love that bit of history about our fair city. Thanks to Helen Ofield.


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