The Old Main Bell: Historic treasure returns to campus

Kristi Bohlender, executive director of the CSU Alumni Association, with Cam the RAM.

The phone call Kristi Bohlender received in February 2016 was somewhat unexpected.

It was her husband, Troy, calling as Kristi – executive director of Colorado State University’s Alumni Association – was driving one of their children to a practice.

Their conversation went something like this:

Troy: “Do you know anything about a bell in our driveway?”

Kristi: “What? A bell?”

Troy: “Yeah. A bell – a big one, and it looks like it is old, and really heavy, and it’s sitting in our driveway. Any idea what’s going on?”

Kristi couldn’t stop laughing because, just a few days earlier, she had another curious phone call.

This one had come from a local attorney, asking her what she would do with a long-lost bell from a long-lost campus building if it were still in existence, and if it might be a fit for CSU’s new alumni center. His client had decided that it was time to return the bell to CSU.

Thus, for the first time in nearly a century, CSU’s Old Main Bell was out in public. And now, thanks to efforts all across campus, The Old Main Bell will once again be chiming at CSU.

The Old Main Bell was a campus treasure during its brief stay on campus. Students painted “Beat Boulder” on the bell in a display of their disdain for their rivals at the University of Colorado.

How it all began

Sometime around 1910, CSU acquired a bell – and what a bell! Manufactured in 1894 by the C.S. Bell Company in Hillsboro, Ohio, the magnificent bell weighed nearly 500 pounds. Its chiming could be heard across the tiny campus of Colorado Agricultural College and throughout most of Fort Collins – a fast-growing agricultural center of 8,201 residents.

The bell was housed in the tower of Old Main – the first significant building on campus. It was home to classrooms, a cafeteria and the only significant auditorium in the area. CSU’s first presidents lived there alongside some of its first students.

The bell rang every morning to announce the start of classes; members of the freshman class were assigned to the daily duty. And, as you might expect on a college campus, students often gave into the temptation to pull the bell’s rope in the middle of the night, angering nearby residents.

Sometime around 1915, when football coach Harry Hughes was starting to establish a winning tradition at CSU, the bell found another purpose: Its peals soared across the landscape mere minutes after each football victory and lasted until midnight. A campus tradition – perhaps the first in the University’s history – was born.

That’s when the bell’s story gets a bit murky. It was reported in the Rocky Mountain Collegian that the bell’s clapper had been stolen – perhaps by residents who had grown weary of the frequent and very loud noise. Students weren’t about to stop ringing the bell, however, and used sledge hammers and even an ax to make it chime.

The plot thickens

The Collegian reported in 1919 that the bell was permanently silenced when cracked by overzealous students and their hammers. The ruined bell, legend has it, remained in the Old Main Tower for years.

Freshmen were responsible for ringing the bell daily to mark the start of classes, and after football victories.

But here’s what really happened: One night – likely in 1919 – a group of at least four men climbed the tower and removed the bell. They managed to slip away unseen, but that is where their planning had ended. They didn’t know what to do with their prize and, scared of being caught, they moved the instrument to a nearby farm and buried it. That’s where it remained for the next 50 years.

Meanwhile …

Students were eager to revive the tradition of ringing the bell. Student government – the precursor to today’s Associated Students of CSU – raised $40 to buy a new bell in 1922. An instrument that had previously served as a train’s bell was found in Denver and made it to campus in time for the football team’s home opener against Colorado College.

The victory bell remained silent a bit longer as the Aggies and Tigers battled to a 0-0 tie. The following week, however, CSU routed Utah State and the bell rang out the news.

This newly revived tradition was short-lived, however, as the new bell – a far less substantial model than the original – cracked in 1925. Its fate remains a mystery.

Disappointed students talked about utilizing a siren to celebrate victories but there is no record of that happening. By that time, the Aggie Cannon – a tradition that lives on to this day – was the preferred way to celebrate touchdowns and victories.

Unearthing a legend

By the early 1970s, the original bell had been all but forgotten. A select few members of a fraternity and its alumni were aware of the story but were sworn to secrecy.

The bell was housed in the tower of Old Main, the first major building on the CSU campus. When Old Main was destroyed in a 1970 fire, it was speculated that the bell was lost in the flames, but the bell had been hidden off-campus for 50 years.

But when it was revealed that the farm where the bell was buried was on the market, action was required. The bell was exhumed and – for the first time in five decades – moved back to an off-campus fraternity house in Fort Collins. There it remained, hidden, for a number of years.

John – not his real name – recalled how he became aware of the tale. His fraternity was involved and wanted to make sure the bell was protected, without revealing its secrets.

“The story of the bell was passed down through the fraternity from year to year,” John said. “Most people in the fraternity knew about it but agreed to keep it a secret. Everything was passed down as lore.”

In an effort to keep the bell safe, it was decided to move it again – this time out of state. That’s where it remained until recently, when the phone call to Bohlender changed everything.

“We had talked about returning the bell for a number of years but we wanted to make sure the timing was right,” John said. “When plans for  the (Iris & Michael Smith) Alumni Center were announced as part of the new stadium project, we knew the time was right. It was time for the bell to ring once more.”

Reclaiming a tradition

When the bell was returned it was, other than a broken yoke, in remarkably good condition. It needed to be refurbished and restored, but it was determined the bell could be rung again without fear of damage.

The bell was in remarkably good condition when it was left on Kristi Bohlender’s driveway in spring of 2016.

The bigger question: What should be done with the reclaimed artifact?

Bohlender soon had her answer. ASCSU, seeking to establish a more profound connection to students’ CSU experience, had recently formed a Traditions and Programs Committee. The committee was hoping to add to a thin list of campus traditions that includes things like the annual painting of the “A” and the firing of the cannon at football games.

At one point the committee had even raised the possibility of buying a bell to restore the century-old tradition of post-victory chimes. When Bohlender told the committee about the returned bell, ASCSU enthusiastically jumped on board.

“Bringing the bell back to campus was a big priority for us,” said Daniela Pineda-Soraca, ASCSU president. “Honestly, the story of the bell really blew our minds. We really thought the original bell had been melted down for scrap during World War II. To have it back on campus is really exciting.”

ASCSU agreed to pay to have the bell restored, with the money coming from the Traditions and Programs budget. The bell was shipped to Chime Master Systems in Sugar Grove, Ohio, not far from the plant where the bell was originally cast.

The project took many months, but the bell has been beautifully restored. It was polished and repaired, and the yoke was replaced. The missing clapper had to be cast by a German company, but the finished product arrived on campus in late March, and was stored in a little-noticed warehouse near the Oval.

Finding a home

It’s one thing to have the bell — and something completely different to display and actually use it. Old Main, its original home, burned to the ground in 1970, and no building in the older part of campus near Old Main’s previous location could accommodate it.

The refurbished ball was unveiled April 18 at a ceremony just steps from the bell’s new home.

That’s when Bohlender and her team at the Alumni Association came up with a plan. The bell could be included as part of the Iris & Michael Smith Alumni Center, in a tower on the northeast corner. Bohlender worked with Mortensen Construction – lead contractor for the on-campus stadium complex – to include the bell in the tower at the entrance of the building.

The tower will be named in honor of Jim and Nadine Henry, named Alumni of the Century in 2000 for their tireless devotion to all things CSU. Kathleen Henry, daughter of the Henrys and president/CEO of the CSU Foundation, along with her three siblings said her parents would be thrilled to know their name will forever be connected to the bell.

“My dad died in 2006, and my mom in 2015, and the family has been looking for a way to honor them,” Kathleen Henry said. “CSU was their passion; they made the best friends of their lives here, and they learned so much here as students. They always said their lives were forever changed for the better by this University.

“When Kristi brought up the idea of the tower, we knew it was just the perfect to way to honor my parents. And we love the connection to the Old Main Bell. My parents both attended classes in Main, and all four of us kids did, too.”

Unlike the past, when easy access to the bell led to all-hours chiming (and many unhappy residents), only a select few will be able to ring the bell in its new location. While a rope will be included for manual ringing, the majority of the peals will be handled via an electronic system that offers hands-free operation.

ASCSU President Daniela Pineda-Soraca and the History and Traditions Committee jumped at the chance to re-establish the tradition of the bell.

CSU administration, the Alumni Association, athletics and ASCSU will determine over the coming months appropriate times to ring the bell.

“We don’t want it ringing all the time,” Pineda-Soraca said. “In addition to celebrating victories, we hope to ring the bell at the beginning of the year, at commencement and other important occasions. We want it to be special and symbolic.

“We want to develop pride in our students, and the bell will be the perfect blend of old and new traditions. I can’t wait to hear it ring for the first time.”

Coming full circle

As for John, there’s a sense of relief that comes with telling the tale of the bell. For decades it was assumed that CSU would punish the perpetrators for stealing the bell, but President Tony Frank assured Bohlender that all is forgiven. CSU is just thrilled to regain its bell.

“I can’t tell you how excited we are to have it back on campus,” Bohlender said. “This truly is going to a great addition to CSU, connecting our past, present and future.”

John said he’s delighted with CSU’s plans to make the bell part of the stadium complex.

“It deserves to be on the campus, where everyone can hear it and appreciate it,” he said. “I think some of us felt a little embarrassed that the bell hadn’t been returned prior to this, but we felt like this was the appropriate time to bring back the tradition. It’s time for the bell to ring again.”