Bell From County’s Third Courthouse Stands at 4th and Vine
(written by David Kranz, Archives staff)
An audience member at a performance of the Dark La Crosse Tour: Radio Show asked whether the bell at the corner of 4th and Vine Streets was put there as some form of remembrance of the 1884 lynching that took place on the old courthouse block.
(Courthouse bell and stand at 4th and Vine Streets)
While there is no connection between the bell and the lynching, this provides a good opportunity to look into the bell’s history.
The bronze bell was cast in 1904 by the Meneely Bell Co. of Troy, N.Y., to hang in the cupola of La Crosse’s third county courthouse. Initially the bell was connected to a clock and it rang the hours. The bell remained stationary and was struck by a mechanical hammer rather than a swinging clapper.
Both bell and clock were initially powered by a water or steam system using water from the nearby Mississippi River. Within a year or two, though, silty river water clogged the system’s pipes with hardened mud. County Judge Eugene A. Toepel wrote in the 1960s that an electric motor was added to power the clock in 1920, but apparently the bell was not connected.
The bell hung silent for many years in the cupola over the courthouse. Judge Toepel reported that some janitors rang it by hand in mid-March 1956 – perhaps out of curiosity or perhaps to scare off pigeons whose nesting messes regularly clogged storm drains on the courthouse roof. (It was not a lasting solution to the pigeon problem.)
In the early 1960s, plans were made for a new courthouse building on a nearby block. A Montgomery Ward store would be built on the old courthouse block. By early 1965, the bell had been removed from atop the third courthouse in preparation for the building’s demolition.
(1965 courthouse demolition)
In April 1965, a committee formed with a plan to refurbish the bell and place it on a pedestal outside the new courthouse entrance. They sent the bell to Cincinnati, Ohio, where it was restored and given electrical knockers by the I.T. Verdin Co., at a cost around $1,400.
The Historic Court House Bell Committee began fundraising in November 1965, aiming for donations totaling $4,500 to cover the refurbishing, the shipping, and a concrete pedestal. Led by the Rotary Club of La Crosse, many civic organizations in the area participated in the effort. Co-chairs of the committee were E.F.K. Gansen and James Brindley. They reported in the La Crosse Tribune of Jan. 23, 1966, that they’d reached $1,200 in donations.
(Two committee members with bell - La Crosse Tribune)
One of their fundraising ideas was to put the bell on a W.A. Roosevelt Co. truck and drive it to different parts of the city for display, seeking donations at each location. A recording of the bell’s ring was to be made by committee member Joseph Rohrer, this recording to be played in radio and television ads seeking support of the fundraising campaign, according to an Oct. 31, 1965, Tribune article. Anyone who donated $5 or more to the bell fund was also to receive a one-year membership in the La Crosse County Historical Society.
(East entrance to new county building with bell circled - County building 1965 dedication booklet)
The fundraising was successful, and three years after demolition of the old courthouse, the bell was erected on a pedestal by the east entrance to the new county building. Today we know it as the county administrative center. A dedication ceremony for the bell was held in light rain on Thursday, Sept. 19, 1968, featuring remarks from John A. Elliot, past president of the Rotary Club of La Crosse, and Orval Nelson, who represented the general contracting firm that built the courthouse. The bell was rung, and music was provided by band members from La Crosse State University conducted by Ralph Wahl.
(Bell dedication ceremony 1968 - La Crosse Tribune)
At some point, the bell and pedestal were moved to their current location at the corner of 4th and Vine Streets, the northeast corner of the old courthouse block, currently a parking lot known as Lot C. I haven’t uncovered the exact date for the move from 6th Street to Lot C. Do any of you remember? Could its move have anything to do with the 1988 razing of the Mary E. Sawyer Auditorium, which gave way to the county building now known as the Health & Human Services Building? Was it moved to Lot C when the current courthouse was built around 1997?
(Photo of cornerstone from La Crosse Tribune 29 April 1965)
Also part of the bell display today is the red sandstone cornerstone brick from the third courthouse, dated 1903, currently laid into the ground in front of the bell and pedestal.