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Return of the Ring

By Peter Bailley '74

Like Old Main, the Knox bell is one of a kind.

Through the 1840s, Knox’s first bell was a modest hand bell that signaled the class schedule at the Academy building at Main and Cherry streets, just north of the current campus. Knox Bells, an undated document in the College Archives, telegraphs the bell’s first holiday: "Borrowed Dec. 24, 1851. Returned Jan. 5, 1852."

Atop Old Main, the bell was up three long flights of stairs, and pranks became more pragmatic -- "bell clapper removed several times, but always reappeared several days later . . . sometimes rope was cut [or] clapper was tied down," recalls the Knox Bells document.

On October 26, 1864, the Troy Bell Foundry of Jones & Co., Troy, New York, billed the College 68-cents per pound for a new bell weighing 518 pounds -- $352.24, more than $5,500 today. The College was assured that "the bell and mounting are warranted not to break in one year from date and tone warranted satisfactory to the purchaser."

By the late 1800s, the bell was also used to alert the college and community to Knox victories in intercollegiate oratorical contests, which were an important part of student life at that time.

Unfortunately, one student's fine voice tolled doom for that of the bell. "When John Huston Finley won the oratorical championship in 1887, the college bell was rung so vigorously that it cracked," recalled a 1963 article in the Galesburg Post.

The bell, however, would have its revenge on Finley.

In the winter of 1896, and again in 1901, the bell was turned upside down and filled with water, which froze and cracked the metal. The Class of 1902, having endured "the dismal tone of the old cracked bell, decided to have the bell recast," later wrote the 1902 class president, Charles E. Swanson. Containing both new metal and fragments from older Knox bells, and inscribed "Not to live, but to live well," the recast bell was stored in the library in Alumni Hall, awaiting the formal dedication ceremony on February 27, 1902. The dedicatory speaker was Finley, a distinguished academic figure who had served as Knox president, 1892-1899.

"The exercises were a complete success in every detail, except . . ." -- The Knox Student ominously noted -- except that the bell had been stolen from the library by some students several weeks before and had to be dedicated in absentia. Knox would "ring the new bell if circumstances permit," Finley intoned, "And if not this morning, then tomorrow morning, next week or the week after. Some time it will ring . . . ."

A week later -- on March 5, 1902 -- it did ring, having been recovered by a local deputy, following tips, tracks though a muddy field, and spadework in an abandoned barn.

Mechanical problems developed in the late 1980s, and a recording was used until five years ago. Alerted by a student to deterioration of the wooden tower, and long irked by the tinny recording, President Roger Taylor '63 initiated major repairs to the tower and bell in 2001-2002.

"Let the Old Main bell ring again!" Taylor proclaimed in his bell tower dedication remarks on Founders Day 2002. Or, to paraphrase the inscription on the bell, "Not to ring, but to ring well."