The sound of a pealing bell meant different things: a call to worship, perhaps to indicate the time of day, or to announce a joyous and festive occasion like a wedding or the nation’s Independence Day. In the 19th century, the sound of a bell also had other meanings: a warning or a call to action associated with fire. Without anything like today’s instant communication, the sound of the station bell was an effective way to quickly convey a message to firemen and citizens. We seldom hear bells today.
When the Museum’s Fire Barn was torn down last autumn, we had to find a new home for the historic bronze bell that hung in the tower. The bell was cast in 1874 by the Buckeye Foundry in Cincinnati, Ohio. It hung in the tower on the State Street fire house that was adjacent to Oshkosh’s first City Hall, built in 1888 on the northwest corner of State and Otter streets. That grand and beautiful brick and limestone building was demolished in January 1964. Many magnificent historic structures were demolished in the early 1960s as part of what was then called “urban renewal.” Madison Wrecking Co. of Oshkosh received the contract for the City Hall demolition.
Over the decades that bell rang out the alarm for numerous fires, like the massive Choate Hollister Furniture Co. fire in 1899. Citizens laughed and cried for joy when the big bell helped proclaim war victories in 1918 and again in 1945. But gradually the old bell became silent, an antiquated and ineffectual token from another era.
It seemed appropriate for the Museum’s historic bell to find a home at a fire station, a place where it could be seen, heard, and appreciated. The Oshkosh Fire Department was enthusiastic about the idea. Together, the department and Museum are creating a replica “tower” at the Ceape Street station, relatively close to the bell’s original home. Work on the structure got underway in autumn and will be completed this spring.
Our collections exist for many reasons: to help tell stories, to be an inspiration, and to help create an atmosphere of remembrance and gratitude for all that came before us. Generations of firefighters have served the citizens of Oshkosh, and it continues to be an essential and highly respected profession.
The fire bell is being restored so it can ring once again. Soon the voice of the 450-pound bronze bell will resonate up and down the river and throughout the Main Street district, just as it did in the late 1800s.