Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Mission Bells Mark California History

On a (presumably) hot day in August, 1906, the first El Camino Real Mission Bell was installed near historic Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles.  Exactly 100 years later to the day, Caltrans celebrated installation of the newest Mission Bell right across the street from the original bell.  

The first bell was established as a result of dedicated and resourceful women’s groups, spearheaded by the California Federation of Women’s Clubs and the Native Daughters of the Golden West, who were intent on preserving California’s rapidly vanishing history.  The women were particularly involved in protecting one of the most iconic symbols of early California -- the El Camino Real. One of their major tasks was to reestablish the road and select a representative roadside marker.

The chosen design was a cast iron bell attached to an 11-foot guidepost. By 1913, 450 of the bells marked the site of what has been called California’s first highway. Unfortunately, the markers were not maintained and soon fell into disrepair. By the year 2000, less than 80 of the original mission bells remained, the rest victims of vandalism, theft and damage.

Then, two developments came together to resurrect the marker system: The Caltrans Landscape Architecture Program obtained a $1.4- million federal grant to restore the markers and California Bell Company, manufacturer of the original bells, resumed production after a 40-year hiatus. When the Caltrans restoration contract completed in 2006, 555 new bells had been installed at approximately two-mile intervals along El Camino Real (which largely follows U.S. 101) between San Diego and Sonoma.

The original California Bell Company was owned by the bell designer, Mrs. A.S. C. Forbes, who sold it shortly before she died in 1951. In 2000, current owner John Kolstad approached the then-owner and asked if he could buy one of the many surplus bells that were sitting in his garage. The owner refused to sell the bell unless Kolstad bought the entire company with it, including the original foundry molds and boxes of historic photographs and documents.

When Kolstad did, he purchased a piece of California history. 

Kolstad, along with Caltrans and some very strong-minded women, can be proud of their role in preserving a uniquely California tradition.