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Historical bell lands at South Colby Elementary

Finding a home for the cast-iron black bell that rests on a wooden base just outside of the main office at South Colby Elementary School was an easy decision.

But getting it there, as Russell Neyman likes to explain, was anything but simple.

Neyman, who is chairman of The Yukon Harbor Historical Society, said his three-member group of locals has “done a good job of digging up the history of a town that no longer exists.”

But even he was skeptical when John and Sandy O’Donnell offered to donate the bell in 2009 that was at their Southworth residence. It took a couple of years to assuage those concerns. J.B. Hall, the historical society’s vice chairman, confirmed through C.S. Bell Company, which remains in business, that they manufactured the bell. Because of the company’s detailed records, Neyman said, “We’re pretty sure the bell was made in 1883 or 1884.”

Neyman said that is consistent with the opening of the Colby School in 1885, which he said “was no bigger than a one-car garage.”

Eventually, Hall said students and teachers were moved to a larger building in 1909 on Garfield Avenue. He said he is about “90 percent” sure the object, which is a No. 3 Farm Bell that weighs about 70 pounds and is approximately 18 inches in diameter, moved to the new school.

When the school closed in 1948, Neyman said the bell ”went into oblivion.” Before the O’Donnells came across the bell, Neyman was told it hung from a wisteria tree for at least 50 years.

“They told me it was rusting away,” he said.

Hall took responsibility for cleaning the bell.

“It was green and rusty,” Neyman said. “The ringing arm has been broken off. It sure shows that it has been used.”

Hall used myriad fire brushes to preserve the bell’s original paint. Despite the restoration work, the bell shows its age with extensive pitting on one side.

Once that work was complete, Hall and Neyman endeavored to find the bell a permanent location. The Yukon Harbor Historical Society does not have a museum, and Neyman already has the bell that once was featured at the Grant & Sons store in Colby. Because of its historical connection to the community, South Colby principal Brian Pickard called Neyman about housing the bell at his school.

“I thought this was the perfect place for it,” he said.

The Yukon Harbor Historical Society placed the bell on indefinite loan April 30 to South Colby Elementary. Neyman said they considered other locations, such as the original school site, but wanted to pick a safe location.

“We didn’t want it vandalized or stolen,” he said. “It already has lived a charmed life and we didn’t want to press our luck.”

Pickard said the bell was introduced to students and faculty during a late April presentation. Preparing it was a community undertaking as local architect David Fall designed the wooden base that teacher Tim Shaffer built.

“It was designed to just go on an ordinary post,” Neyman said. “They’ve got something that is as sturdy as an ordinary pier.”

Neyman said he likes the thought of students becoming acquainted with the historical aspect of the bell.

“It’s hard to imagine these kids coming across anything in their lives that is 128 years old,” he said.

Retiring South Colby teacher Bonnie Kimball was the first — and remains the only — person to ring the bell at the school.

“We’ll ring it on special occasions,” Pickard said. “We’re in the process of starting new traditions with it.”

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