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The bell of Woodrow Wilson School

As a rule of thumb, the “responsibility” of a bell is to signify when something has begun or ended. However, much like the ding-dong, ding-dong of that signifying rhythm there comes a time, when as the days go by, the sound is hushed and the bell becomes nothing more than a brief echo of something that used to be. Due to the opening of a new elementary school, Woodrow Wilson School was torn down and disassembled throughout 1955 and along with it the school bell, that had started each school day, was silenced for good.

Completing construction on the corner of Oak and First Street in 1868, Central High School was considered to be one of THE finest constructed schools in Michigan.

However, on May 1, 1886 the building was destroyed by a large fire that rapidly engulfed the building. Much to the discouragement of students, the school days were continued by school administrators renting various rooms and halls that were available throughout the city. With another school year around the corner, plans were quickly made for the construction of a new building to be built on the same spot as the previous school. An architect by the name of F.W. Hollister (who would later go on to the design several buildings in Manistee including the Ramsdell Building on River Street and building that still houses the fire department building) was commissioned to design the new building.

By July 1886, L.B. Long and Co. of Manistee had won the bid for the $29,754 structure and immediately got to work constructing the new building. The bid itself allowed for the use of 102,000 bricks and 74 cords of stone salvaged from the ruins of the old building. After more money was allocated for construction, work continued into the spring of 1887 when the Manistee Times- Sentinel published the following description on March 25 of that year:

“The building is of brick, two stories and basement, and measures 91x156 feet.

“Commencing with the foundation we find it of solid stone masonry, 3 feet, 6 inches thick extending to the first story where the solid brick walls are 20 inches thick, and the walls from the second story upwards are 16 inches thick.

“Every room is cheerful, admirably lighted and ventilated, and the whole building is heated with steam.

“The cost of the building complete will be $40,000. The rapidity with which it has been pushed forward to completion is wonderful, when we take into consideration, its size and that nothing has been slighted, every part having been built and finished upon honor, according to the contract. Mr. L.B. Long may well congratulate himself as being the contractor and builder of the finest and most substantial structure in Northern Michigan, which will stand as a monument to his energy and skilled workmanship, as well as to the enterprise of the citizens of Manistee who believe in education and the rewards accruing from a pronounced school system, which is the seed of peace, plenty, and prosperity.”

As the finishing touches were being put into place for the new Central High School, a bronze bell manufactured in Baltimore, Maryland and weighing 1,500 pounds was installed in the tower of the school. The impressive chime was considered a showcase for the school as well as a reminder that class had begun.

As decades passed, and the school became too crowded for the city’s secondary school population plans for a new high school were voted on and later instigated in 1925. With the new Manistee High School opened in 1927, the name of Central School was changed to honor the 28th President of the United States thus becoming the Woodrow Wilson School.

For the next 25 plus years, the building served as the primary education center for elementary school children in the city of Manistee. However, by the early 1950s, the structure, which had undergone multiple updates and repairs over the years, was in need of a major maintenance overhaul and it was eventually decided by voters to construct a new modern elementary school on Bryant Avenue. In addition it was also decided by school officials to tear down the Woodrow Wilson School.

On November 15, 1954, the new school, called Jefferson Elementary School opened to students, with an official dedication planned for January 1955. With Jefferson finally open, the task of tearing down and dissembling the old school which began by clearing the out valuable stuff important for the school system (desks, supplies, etc.) but also the important stuff deemed invaluable for posterity’s sake. Of great importance was the school bell that for nearly 70 years began each school day. Details on what school officials decided to do with the bell were published in the Manistee News Advocate on January 12, 1955:

“The ancient Woodrow Wilson school building and school property was sold for $2,000 to Henry Marek, Route Two, Ludington, yesterday evening when sealed bids were opened during the monthly meeting of the Board of Education at Supt. Dorr L. Wilde’s office in the high school.

“Marek’s bid, the highest of three received, included dismantling of the building and clearing the area to prepare it for residential lots in six months’ time, or as soon as possible there-after, barring unforeseen circumstances.

“A request from the Manistee County Historical Society for the school bell in the Woodrow Wilson School to be placed in the Manistee museum was approved by the board and Mr. Marek’s bid included his agreement to remove the bell from the Woodrow Wilson School and move it to the museum located in the old Water Works building on First Street.”

In addition to the above article on January 12, 1955 the Manistee News Advocate published amusing article in their “Just In Passing” editorial column that fondly recalls the old school bell of yesteryear as well as recall a fun story about the pranks played using the bell:

“No one knows how many times the ‘school bell’ in the Woodrow Wilson School has pealed out to summon generations of Manisteeans to their classes. Thousands of persons in the community remember how the familiar ‘clang clang’ have them notice that another school day was about to begin or that the noon hour was over.

“Before the time of electric buzzers and alarms the bell tolled in the school throughout the years, during the time the building was known as the Central School when it was the high school, and after 1926 when it became the Woodrow Wilson grade school.

“Tomorrow at 11 a.m. the bell will ring out for the last time in the school belfry. It will be tolled as a symbol of the end of a school era before it is removed by the wrecking firm which last night was granted the contract to raze the school. The bell will be taken from the belfry and placed in the new Manistee museum, the old water works building. There, according to plans of Historical Society officials, it will be set up so that it can be rung by museum visitors who have nostalgic memories of their former school days.

“Many will remember that in addition to calling pupils to classes the bell also was a focal point of a contest of wits between students on one side and school authorities and city police on the other.

“Every Halloween students would attempt to circumvent school and police precautionary measure and get into the building to ring the bell. Usually they succeeded, by hook or by crook, even going so far as to hide in the belfry in the afternoon in order to be on hand at night.

“One year, we recall, police were especially determined to keep the bell silent and they set up a more elaborate guard than usual. But promptly at the usual time the bell started ringing. It continued as police and the janitor scurried around in the building and could find no one.

“A couple of enterprising students had collected all the available clothesline in the neighborhood and about dusk had made their way into the school attached the rope to the clapper. They strung the clothesline to the second story of a nearby home and pulled the clapper from there.

“The belfry itself was something to conquer. Students, of course, were never supposed to go up there. So, since it was prohibited, they accepted the challenge.

“The belfry steps could be reached, at one time anyway, only through a trap door in the ceiling directly in front of the superintendent’s office. So, to get through the first floor ceiling and up to the belfry was something of an accomplishment, like climbing Mt. Everest. Many attained the summit, as proved by the hundreds of initials and names carved in the woodwork of the cupola.

“Yes, when the bell rings for the last time tomorrow it will bring back memories to many in Manistee.”

Since 1955, the school bell from Woodrow Wilson continues to be on display on the front lawn of the Water Works Building on First Street.

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