I like to be accurate when it comes to relaying history to others. I don’t care to be duped myself and I would not do so to others. I have always made a point to confirm what I can and simply say ‘I don’t know’ when I don’t know. For some time now I have intended to cover the historic sites in Council Grove, and either prove or disprove the common story that is attached to those sites. I have often been told by long time residents of this town that some of the history is closer to made up. We have found this quite true in the case of the Old Pioneer Jail. It appears that there are other stories that are completely false, partly false or the story has been elaborated over the years. Some are easy to detect, others take a bit more research to come to conclusions. One such elaborated story I want to set before you is that of the old bell on the hill.
What is now our Bell Monument on Belfry Hill was first intended for the Plymouth Congregational Church in Lawrence Kansas. The bell was ordered by the church in 1863 but refused when they found a crack in the rim. Sam Wood was in Lawrence at the time and found out about the bell. Being aware that our town needed an alarm bell he arranged for the purchase and shipment of the bell to Council Grove. It was hauled out across the Santa Fe Road by oxen at an exorbitant rate of $9.
It was not put into immediate use once it reached the Grove. It turned out much like one of my home projects and didn’t get tended to for some time. It sat on Belfry Hill until 1866 when a wooden tower was finally erected for it. We are told by Lalla Brigham in 1921 that the bell was used as an alarm, church and school bell for nearly 40 years. In 1881 when President Garfield died the bell rang monotonously for half a day.
By 1884 a new tower was erected and blown over in a wind storm and the bell rolled down the hill into A. G. Campbell’s yard, where the Ratliff’s presently reside on Mission Street. Vandals (not the Vandals, but some vandals) busted the top off the bell with a sledge hammer. The rim was overturned and used by Mrs. Campbell as a flower pot until 1901 when Mrs. Kate Aplington encouraged the school children to raise money for a stone monument to preserve the remains.
It was initially known as the McKinley Monument as the cornerstone was laid on the day that the president was buried.
In my research I have found that the story of the bell has morphed a little bit over the years. Originally it was a church bell, then intended as an alarm bell. A picture from the Morris County Historical Society shows two men sitting in front of the bell. The picture was taken in 1940. The sign on the bell reads “THE OLD BELL-(date is difficult to make out, something resembling 1868) USED AS CHURCH SCHOOL AND ALARM BELL” This sign is most likely the one that was placed on the monument at the early part of the century shortly after it was erected. The present sign in front of the bell reads, “OLD BELL- 1863 Used to warn settlers of Indian raids”. The present bronze plaque on the monument reads the same and appears to be old but was not on the monument in the 1940 picture.
To say the bell was used to warn of Indian raids is inordinately presumptuous. There should be no plurality. The only raid it may have rung in alarm would have been the 1868 Cheyenne raid on the Kaw, as that is the only raid on record. History has somehow forgotten the brave soul who stood out there on the hill in bow and rifle range of the Cheyenne. That would have been a most selfless and heroic act worthy of recognition and praise for a hundred years to come. Also, I have found no historical reference as to who received such advanced notice to run up there and ring the bell. Nor have I come across any statements from anyone recalling the bell ringing during the raid.
When we think of the bell as an alarm bell it may be natural to assume an alarm for Indians since this was the edge of civilization. However, I believe the most common alarm to ring out would be for a fire, just the same as when the tornado sirens go off today at an unusual hour it alerts the volunteers to hurry to the fire house. It may also have rang out when someone in the community passed away, but I have found no record of this custom here.
I have currently been reading ‘The Price of the Prairie’, which I believe may have spawned a number of romantic ideas concerning certain sites in Council Grove. The writer is clearly using Council Grove as her fictional ‘Springvale’. In the story the church bell is rang in the middle of the night to warn all the settlers of an impending raid by Missouri ruffians. The Hermit’s Cave is high up on a bluff overlooking the Neosho River, in fact in the novelist’s version the Hermit plunged to his death into the river from the cave. There is also a private post office used between two lovers, it is not a tree that is used but a crevice in the rock on ‘Cliff Street’. The Tavern Oak, which is a prominent tree that grows in front of the tavern, is used as a meeting place; many familiar entities and locations, but all with a writer’s romantic spin.