FOR WHOM THE MISSION BELLS TOLL
Caltrans celebrates the return of the Mission Bell Markers to Downtown Los Angeles
On August 15, 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 womenï¿½s groups, spearheaded by the California Federation of Womenï¿½s Clubs and the Native Daughters of the Golden West, who were intent on preserving Californiaï¿½s 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 Californiaï¿½s 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 this year, 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.
About 100 representatives from across the mission bell community ï¿½ Caltrans, the womenï¿½s clubs, the manufacturer, and various unaffiliated mission bell enthusiastsï¿½attended the centennial event at Father Serra Park across from Olvera Street.
Deborah Harris, District 7 Public Affairs and Media Relations Chief, opened the event, introducing speakers Keith Robinson, Caltrans Principal Landscape Architect; Max Kurillo, mission bells historian; Tammy Guensler of the GFWC California Federation of Womenï¿½s Clubs; Adeline Coronado of the Native Daughters of the Golden West and John Kolstad, owner of the California Bell Company.
ï¿½We are so pleased that both the oldest and newest mission bell markers are part of Los Angeles history,ï¿½ Harris said. ï¿½The bells remind us of where California began and how far we have traveled since then.ï¿½
Robinson spoke of Caltransï¿½ deep commitment to ï¿½fulfilling the original vision of the women who dedicated themselves to preserving and symbolically marking Californiaï¿½s first highway.ï¿½
The womenï¿½s clubs representatives not surprisingly emphasized the role of women as highway pioneers. ï¿½Why do you think we have white lines down the middle of roads?ï¿½ asked Guensler. ï¿½Itï¿½s because a member of the Indio Womenï¿½s Club was run off the road by a truck in 1917 and she started the campaign to get the lines painted on streets.ï¿½
Perhaps the most poignant story was told by California Bell owner John Kolstad. As a child, he had become captivated by an old mission bell he saw on Whittier Boulevard near his house. Well into adulthood, he was still hooked and decided to track down and purchase a bell for the backyard of his northern California home.
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. Six years ago, Kolstad approached the current 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.
ï¿½All I wanted was one bell,ï¿½ he said. ï¿½But I knew if I didnï¿½t pick up the torch, it would all be goneï¿½these patterns and forms and history would all end up in the junkyard.ï¿½
Kolstad, along with Caltrans and some very strong-minded women, can be proud of their role in preserving a uniquely California tradition.