History: For whom the bell tolled

If you have visited the downtown Edmonds summer or holiday markets, or simply walked by the Edmonds Historical Museum, you may not have realized that you were near an artifact that dates back 133 years to when Edmonds was first incorporated in 1890.

Most folks I have talked with say they never noticed the bell above the Edmonds Historical Museum sign that hangs within the bell tower, nor do they have any knowledge of its history.

Given that reality, let’s take a glimpse back in time to explore the bell’s history.

The Bell’s First Home

The bell was cast in late 1890, and first hung in the belfry above the newly constructed three-story wooden Edmonds Elementary School in 1891. The school was set back south about 100 yards from what is now Main Street and 7th Avenue.

Edmonds Grade School (1891 -1929) with belfry and bell in the center, atop the school building. (Photo courtesy Edmonds Historical Museum)

In historical accounts, the bell was said to have been tolled four times on school days. Each morning the bell pealed 10 minutes before school was to begin, and then again when the classes were scheduled to start. Tardiness was looked upon harshly, and would have possibly earned a student a trip to the principal’s office.

Students were given one hour and 15 minutes for a midday meal. Most students hurried home for lunch, as meals were not available within the school. The bell was again tolled 10 minutes before classes were scheduled to resume, and a second time when the classes were to commence.

By all accounts, the bell was said to have been heard clearly across the town and echoed off the hillside to the east. Various articles recount that it was loud enough to be heard above the sounds of the shingle mills as well as the whistles of small steamboats as they came into the Edmonds dock.

In 1896, when Frances Anderson and her brother entered the grade school, they would have heard the toll of the bell, and reacted in a manner to make sure they were not late for class.

By the time the school was razed in 1929, and replaced by a new school that sat closer to Main Street, the bell was summoning over 300 students to its halls and classrooms each day. It is estimated that between 8,000 to 10,000 students would have been summoned by the bell during its 30 years at the school. It also would have acted as a time piece for the entire community, alerting everyone to the time of day.

This 1909 photo shows students wrapped around the school building. The number of students needing to attend school grew rapidly over the next two decades. (Photo courtesy of Edmonds Historical Museum)

When the wooden structure was torn down the bell was obtained by the Hughes Memorial Church which sat on the corner of 5th and Dayton.  The bell was then housed in one of the church’s belfries from 1930 until 1959.

Photo of Hughes Memorial Church – 5th and Dayton circa 1940. (Photo courtesy Edmonds Historical Museum)

The bell tolled every Sunday morning, calling worshippers to services for nearly 30 years. By parishioners’ and citizens’ accounts the bell’s toll was a welcomed sound marking the end of another week, and signaled a gathering of like-minded souls on Sunday mornings.

The bell also was rung on special occasions such as weddings, funerals and holidays throughout its three decades atop the church.

Don Frothingam who grew up in Edmonds, remembers the bell ringing every Sunday morning. The bell also ran after service and the fire chief at the time also sounded the fire engine’s siren a few blocks away to signal the noon hour.

June Crump, another longtime Edmonds resident stated that she remembers the bell ringing every Sunday morning, and that the bell had a long rope that hung downward. She also stated that  one of her saddest memories was coming back to Edmonds, and not seeing the church on the corner. It was such a landmark.

When Hughes Memorial Church was torn down in 1959, and a new church built near 8th and Caspers Street, the bell was placed into storage.   A decade later it was obtained by the Edmonds School District, and was affixed on top of the Elementary School at 7th and Main in 1969.

The original 1891 school bell being reinstated atop Edmonds Elementary School in 1969. (Photo courtesy of Edmonds Historical Museum)

The bell once again tolled every weekday morning, making students aware that the school day was beginning. Four years later, in 1973, the Edmonds School District closed the elementary school due to a lack of students in the downtown area.

The bell that had served the school district on two different occasions was placed into storage at the end of the school year. It was subsequently acquired by the Edmonds South Snohomish County Historical Society in 1977, and placed in front of the Edmonds Historical Museum.

Photo of the bell in its original wooden structure in front of the Edmonds Historical Museum circa 1980s. (Photo courtesy of the Edmonds Historical Museum)

The bell resided in that location until 2015, when it was taken down and refurbished. It was then installed in a new bell tower with the Edmonds Historical Museum sign below it. You can learn more about the installation of the current bell tower here.

To hear the sound of the bell that would have tolled for students for so many years,  click here.

Photo by Byron Wilkes

The bell proudly hangs above the Edmonds Museum sign in the new bell tower. On the backside of the museum’s sign is a historical account of the bell’s history for visitors to examine and read.

Photo by Byron Wilkes

While conducting research and interviewing people for this article, those interviewed often stated that they seem to be always hurrying somewhere, and often don’t see the wonderful things that Edmonds has to offer. The 1890 school bell, in my opinion, is one object that we all should cherish for its longstanding contribution to the city and for its amazing longevity.

This article was researched and written by Byron Wilkes. Thanks to the Edmonds Historical Museum for their help in the research and for everyone who spoke with me about the bell and their remembrances and impressions.

  1. Thank you for sharing that interesting bit of history and the link to the sound of the bell. I enjoy learning about Edmonds past

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