A CSU tradition disappeared over a century ago. Today, it returned.
A CSU tradition that was lost over 100 years ago returned to campus today: The Old Main bell.
The Old Main bell, which came to campus around 1910, was housed in Old Main, a building that burned to the ground during student protests in 1970. However, the bell was stolen about 50 years before that in 1919. Today, it was unveiled as part of “I Love CSU Day” on the Aylesworth lawn across from the entrance to the new on-campus stadium.
In spring 2016, Kristi Bohlender, the executive director of the CSU Alumni Association, got a phone call from an attorney who said his client had a question: if the Old Main bell was returned, what would the University do with it?
Through this conversation, Bohlender found out that a group of alumni were in possession of the original bell, waiting for the right moment to return it to campus. They felt the construction of the new on-campus stadium was that moment.
The 450-pound bell was passed down generationally by a group of alumni. While everyone involved in the original theft has died now, the group of alumni that had kept it was reluctant to come forward. It was stolen by a group of male students – Bohlender estimates at least four people had to be involved in order to steal such a heavy artifact – and it was promptly buried on a local farm owned by one of the original thieves.
The bell remained buried for 50 years, ending the tradition of students ringing it after football victories and to signal the start of classes every day. It was unearthed eventually, possibly when the farm was sold, but after that the history gets “murky,” according to Bohlender.
“It crossed state lines, but I honestly have no idea (what happened after that),” Bohlender said.
But, in February 2016, the bell literally made its way to Bohlender’s doorstep. A few days after she spoke with the attorney, Bohlender received a call from her husband while she was driving to their daughter’s basketball practice.
“My husband called from the house and he said, ‘um, there’s a bell in our driveway,’ and that’s how we got it back,” Bohlender said.
Around the same time as the bell was returned, student government leader Edward Kendall said he had “coincidentally become obsessed with the bell.”
“I distinctly remember I was on the (freshman orientation) tour on the Oval when my orientation leader told me about the bell. That stuck in my mind,” Kendall said.
Kendall, who served as the 2016-2017 Community Affairs Director for the Associated Students of Colorado State University, developed a proposal to buy a new bell to replace the lost tradition. He was in the process of pitching it to President Tony Frank’s cabinet members around the same time that Bohlender had found out the original bell was about to be returned to campus.
ASCSU also created a department of traditions and programming in order to spearhead this and other projects.
In his research, Kendall found that ASCSU had replaced the original bell once in 1922 for $40, but the second bell disappeared again a few years later. According to Tony Phifer, a public relations representative for the University, rumors circulated that the second bell was sold for scrap metal during World War 2, given CSU’s strong ROTC program.
During Kendall’s research, he began to speculate that there was a chance the original bell was still in existence and could be returned to campus.
Due to the rumors, history and research Kendall had done, he worked with the 2016-2017 ASCSU President Daniela Pineda Soracá to build about $50,000 into their budget for traditions and programming in case they wanted to either purchase a new bell or if they found the old one.
“Eddie and I grew up in Fort Collins, so we have a special connection to the City,” Pineda Soracá said about why they wanted to pursue the project. “We hold a special love for our hometown and, most of all, the heart of Fort Collins that is Colorado State University.”
When Bohlender found out that the student government had taken an interest in the bell as part of CSU history, she brought them on board to partner with them in bringing the bell back to campus.
“We (the students) have a sense of ownership over the bell,” Pineda Soracá said. “It was student initiated and supported.”
Since the bell was buried for 5o years and passed down since then, it needed to be restored. The yoke was broken and a new clapper had to be ordered. ASCSU contributed $20,500 to pay for the repairs. In addition, when the clapper was stolen, students started using a sledgehammer to ring the bell, so several dents had to be repaired as well. The bell was shipped to a company in Ohio for restoration.
To determine where to display it, the Alumni Center and ASCSU had to consider a location to install it where it would be used, but where it would not be a noise nuisance, which was a problem with the second bell. The Alumni Center paid to install the bell in the tower of the new stadium, low enough to be seen from the street, but high enough to be heard. ASCSU declined to help pay for the installation of the bell to the stadium, as they did not want student fees to go towards any stadium infrastructure.
The bell is to be installed in a tower named after and honoring the memory of Jim and Nadine Henry at the Iris & Michael Smith Alumni Center on the northeast corner of the new on-campus stadium. Jim and Nadine Henry were University donors and were named “alumni of the century” in 2000.
“There’s no better fit (for the name of the tower),” Bohlender said. “They would have loved seeing it come back to campus. Continuing the traditions of Colorado State was everything they believed in.”
Given the strong history between students and the bell—students ringing the bell, stealing the bell and returning the bell—Pineda Soracá said students will be allowed to use the bell beginning next year, though the University is unsure about when the bell will be rung for the first time. Bohlender said the Alumni Association will wait for ASCSU’s recommendation about how, when and by whom the bell should be rung.
“Hearing the sound of this bell will bring a sense of pride and connect us to the roots of our land-grant university,” Pineda Soracá said. “The student voice will be heard on campus for generations to come.”
The on-campus stadium’s first home game will be August 26.
Collegian News Editor Erin Douglas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @erinmdouglas23.