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Salmo’s school bell

Updated: Oct 9, 2023

A 113-year-old school bell is expected to be returned soon to a prominent place in Salmo.

The bell sat in front of the current elementary school from 1961 until a few years ago, although it came from an earlier school built in 1903 on Main Street where Salmo Village Grocery now stands.

School District 8 operations director Chris Kerr explained the bell was broken due to metal fatigue and they decided it was dangerous to be left in that condition, so they removed it for repairs.

However, the welder was only able to braze the bell back together, meaning it was very unstable and wouldn’t survive much handling.

He said they looked at housing the bell within Salmo Secondary, but that didn’t work out and most of those they consulted in the community felt it should be displayed at the elementary school. The Village of Salmo agreed and another concrete pad was poured to replace the old one, which was in poor shape.

However, Kerr says the bell was re-broken within two weeks “as children and adults couldn’t resist playing on it or handling it.” Back to the school district’s maintenance yard in Nelson it went. The bell is now in the school district’s welding shop.

In June, village council discussed the matter again and passed a motion to accept the bell and determine a place to put it.

Last month mayor Diana Lockwood said they hope to receive it “very soon.” The village will then turn it over to the Salmo Arts Council, who will display it — once repaired and repainted — on the Community Church property directly across from where the old school once stood.

“There is hope some history is obtained so there can be an information plaque put up with it,” she said.

We know who donated the bell, who made it, who installed it, and when. However, some other details are hazy.

The bell bears the signature of its manufacturer, the C.S. Bell Co. of Hillsboro, Ohio. along with “No. 24 Yoke” (which refers to its diameter in inches).

The aptly-named Charles Singleton Bell founded the company in 1875 and sold over 1,000 units in its first year. Fifteen years later, the foundry was cranking out more than 20,000 bells per year in 15 sizes for schools, churches, and farms. Most were of a steel alloy.

The business lasted 99 years, so numerous examples of the company’s handiwork survive. At least two ended up in our area: in 1902, the Catholic church in Phoenix purchased one, but it’s not known what became of it after Phoenix became a ghost town around 1920.

William R. Salisbury, a prominent man about Salmo, bought the bell for the school in 1910. At the time he was secretary of the school board.

His 1947 obituary, which identified him as the benefactor, described him as Salmo’s “grand old man” and added “his name will go down in Salmo history for his greatest enjoyment of helping out others.”

Salisbury was the community’s first justice of the piece, helped build the skating rink, and was interested in curling, baseball, and hockey. He also owned a freighting business in the days when horses were the method of transport.

The obituary further contained a curious note, indicating that during World War II “he helped build prisoner of war camps.” The closest such camps were in the Kananaskis area of Alberta, so was this actually a reference to housing for interned Japanese Canadians in the West Kootenay?

How much did the bell set Salisbury back? Unclear, but by one report, a 54-inch model from the C.S. Bell Co. was $375 US in 1921. If the cost was directly proportionate to the diameter, a 24-inch bell would have been $167. An inflation calculator suggests $167 in 1921 was the equivalent of $87 in 1910 and $2,800 US today (or $3,800 Cdn). The cost of shipping must have also been significant.

The bell’s installation merited a mention in the Nelson Daily News of May 10, 1910: “William Grutchfield is setting up the new bell for the school house. This will be a good indicator for all children.” Grutchfield was a carpenter and school trustee.

The Salmo Museum has at least one photo of the bell in place, reportedly taken in 1912.

A new Salmo elementary school opened in 1952 but the old school stood vacant until 1963 when the building was burned in a fire department practice. The property was sold to Overwaitea, although BC Assessment indicates the grocery store now on the site wasn’t built until 1982.

A couple of years before the torch was put to the old school, the bell was removed and placed on a concrete plinth in front of the current elementary school.

In the 1990s, perhaps, William Salisbury’s grandsons Roy Barton-Browne and Jack Trimble decided the school bell needed a plaque.

They knew their grandfather had donated it, and, Barton-Browne wrote, “Our intention was to not only honor his name but to give recognition to all students and teachers were part of that old school … Salmo will always be a very important part of my life. I only attended school there for two years but spent all my summers there. My mother was raised there and I will never forget the friends I made.”

Barton-Browne composed the wording for the plaque, which was as follows, written in part from the bell’s perspective!

This bell was donated to the old Salmo school by the late W.R. Salisbury, a Salmo pioneer.
I summoned generations of Salmo students to learn and become good citizens of a great country. Many served their country in war and peace. Some paid the supreme sacrifice and some went on to higher stations in life.
To all these students and teachers, this plaque is respectfully dedicated. All of us who remain will never forget the teachings and friendship formed in the simple, quiet, country school.

The cousins approached Heather Street at the Salmo Museum, who welcomed the idea. Originally they proposed to pay all of the expenses, but Street contacted the school district and various others and “before we knew it all we had to do was attend the function.”

Street can’t remember exactly when that function was held, but it was a tea KP Hall in Salmo with a large cake in the shape of a bell. Among those in attendance: Jack and wife Lorraine from Wenatchee; Roy and wife Elizabeth from Medicine Hat; and additional cousins Norman Strandberg and wife June from Qualicum Beach; and Dianne Nuyens (nee Strandberg) and her husband Ray from Vernon. Most have since died.

Unfortunately, we have no pictures from that event. But the late Jean Stahl, who dearly wished to see the bell put back on display in Salmo, had a copy of Barton-Browne’s letter on the subject, although it’s undated and the original recipient is unknown.

But was the plaque actually created and if so was it actually placed on or near the bell? No one is certain. No photos of it exist and by the time I ambled along in the mid-2010s to check the bell out, there was no plaque to be seen. If it disappeared, where did it go?

In any case, the bell itself stood until sometime after 2018 when the school district, fearing for its condition, removed it.

One other outstanding question: what does the bell sound like? For the answer, we have YouTube to thank. A variety of videos show similar bells in action, although none appear to be a perfect match for the Salmo bell. This was the closest I could find:

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