Audrey Kenyon Wilder, The Bell House – First Building of Albion College, c.1974
The Bell House – First Building of Albion CollegeTranscription of Rough Draft
Almost concealed by a tangle of shrubbery and weeds, the old Bell House, for fifty years the busy heart of the Albion College campus, today stands forlorn and forgotten. No longer owned by the College, it is now deserted. Research, however, shows it was actually the first building constructed by the institution, and for half a century the bell in its tower rang for all classes, nightly curfew, and even emergency fire alarm. Build [sic] in 1840 — one authority states 1840 — while the central building was being constructed, it housed the first classes, and even served as a residence. The parents of the Reverend Loring Grant, first agent of the College, lived there. Under his direction the central building was started.
Though termed “temporary” by several authorities, and, by connotation, hastily constructed, nailed together, and of no permanent value, the Bell House was actually thoughtfully and firmly built. A study of the room plan shows it was carefully designed not for a residence but for educational purpose. A narrow center entrance offered access on either side to two long class rooms. An exit door in each room facilitated departure. End rooms had two doors, both entrance and exit. Back of the center entrance a stairway, narrow and abruptly angled — possibly a “Connecticut-type” — led to the second floor where five long rooms were designed for either class or dormitory use. Hand-made lath, low ceiling, and outlets for stove pipes bespeak the early years of construction. Dr. John Stoddard (1835-1935) a student at Albion in 1853-55, commented in 1909 on the colonial windows in the Bell House. In his opinion “it should be returned to the campus and restored as an irreplaceable part of the first days of the College.”
Although early records stress with pride the central or middle building, its brick walls and its three stories, they scantily but nevertheless convincingly testify to the various activities in the Bell House. A select school was opened there, October 27, 1841 by the Reverend G.P. Tindall and was taught by him in the succeeding winter and spring. W.H. Perrine, D.D., a faculty member of the College, also wrote in 1873 of this first school, although he termed the Bell House “a temporary building erected for that purpose.” Pioneer Collections, Vol. II, likewise mentions this preparatory school. As the central building was not completed until late in 1843 nor fully ready for occupancy until January, 1844, the Bell House continued during these crucial early years as the educational center. In fact James G. Eslow (1836-1918) a long-time distinguished Albion citizen, is quoted as saying that although he did not graduate he was an early student at the College, and when he attended, classes were still held in the Bell House.
This venerable building served at times as a dormitory. The student bell-ringer was often given his room in return for his arduous and constant services. Marguerite (French) Miller (ex-13) writes that her grandfather, David Burns, rang the bell for his tuition, and may have lived there. An interesting fact about David Burns is that he was later a presiding elder of Michigan Methodism and as a circuit rider went all over the state on horseback.
Another student of the pioneer period, Joseph Augustine Woodson, spoke of the Indians who lived in the Bell House. Writing of “Seminary Days” in “Old Albion – 1861-1909” he describes “that low long and rude structure to the rear center where lived the copper-colored sons of the forest from Ontonagon who sought with us instruction in the ways of modern English and taught us how to fashion, stain, and use the bow, and how to harden the arrow’s tip in the flame of a tallow dip…” A more recent alumnus, who identifies himself only as “an octogenarian,” wrote in 1931 in Michigan History that there were in 1848 a “score or more of young full-blooded Indian students gamboling on the college campus.”
The best account of the Bell House as a dormitory is given by John C. Creswell in his Diary for 1869-70-71. Pennsylvania born, John Creswell came to Michigan to look after his brother’s interests in a farm near Litchfield. He first visited the campus in June, 1869, attended the Exhibition of the Eclectic and Atheniades Societie[,] noted the “strawberry Festival at the College,” and observed the Commencement Day Exercises for a class of twelve graduates. He stated the exercises were “very good[.”] Creswell did not, however, enroll in Albion until December, 1869. In the mean time he was doing the heaviest kind of farm work for a sister and her husband near Utica, Michigan. Noting in December in the Albion correspondence of the Detroit Tribune that the winter term opened there on December ninth, he immediately determined to go to Albion the next day. Returning home, he told his sister Lizzie of his decision.
His diary follows, beginning with December 17, 1869
Friday, 17th Rose very early – done the chores – Bade farewell to Utica – good by to Lizzie & Capt – Joe took me to the station – Left Utica station about 9:15 – Waited at the Junction until 11AM. Arrived in Albion 3 P…Went to Eaton’s room. Strolled round thru’ the village – Stopped with Eaton all night. Sat. 18th Eaton & I went down town. Returned – rented a large room in the bell house of W.H. Harper – with table bed stead & chair for 40 ¢ a week – went out to Hares – over to Kilmores – looked around and examined into the state of affairs of Capts’ farm – Back to Eatons Staid with him all night – Sun 19th Eaton & I went to M.E. Church morning & night – With Eaton all night Albion, Mich. Dec.20th-25th 1869 Mon. 20th Went to Hares early in the morning. Cut load of poles on Capts’ place – came back Went to Mr. Clarks got straw to fill my bed. Eaton & I set up my stove – went down town after night – I bought brushes – meat, etc. Tues 21st Cleaned up my room and put things in order – In the evening went down town. Called on Prof. McEldowney had a pleasant time. Wed. 22nd Procured Admission ticket – entered College – Have taken Caesar and 1st Greek – do not know what else I shall take. Began reading Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars. Book IV 21st chap. Thurs 23rd Recited Bo’t outlines of Hist. of H.E. Clark Fri 24th Recited attended meeting of Eclectic Society – had a very pleasant time. Sat. 25th Christmas – Went to Bob’s place to see about the rent found that $61.00 had been paid. P.M. Sawed wood and carried it up stairs – wrote letter to RlJ. Mrs. Prest. McKown sent us a mince pie – Mrs. Cushman sent us oysters, chicken, etc. Eaton & I went down town. Bo’t some hickory nuts – returned ate oysters – cracked nuts until late – Van Lien came in – talked and joked till 12M. Albion, MichDec 26th – Jan 21st Sab. 26th Attended Presbyterian Church in AM M.E. at night Mon. 27th Began reciting Anc. History Tues 28th Recited & studied Wed. 29th Studied & recited present at roll call & division. Remained up until 12M talking and joking in Van Lien’s room. Thurs. 30th & Fri 31st Cut poles on Capt’s place – Spent Thursday night at H—‘s – Friday evening attended meeting of Eclectic Society. Jan 1st, 1870 Another year this day has birth XXX Studied, Sawed wood, etc.
April 1st Went with Rose to the village. He brought me to Concord. Rode two miles out — walked rest of way to Albion. Downtown – voted. Took supper at “the Hall.” Hunted up Laubach. We worked at our room until 10 o’clock. Smoked, and went to bed very tired. April 2nd Breakfast at the Hall. Will board there this term if I come. Got our room nicely arranged. Have a pleasant room in Bell House — only hope I can raise funds for the term. Went down town. Bought mirror, etc. Wrote in Journal. Thurs 11th Studied, Read. Decided to remain in school this term. At Felkers in evening. At Potters at night. Tried to get money of him to come to school this term. Got a partial promise of some from Dodds. Friday 12th Studies, was at Felkers after dinner. Attended meeting of Annalist Association at 3:30P.M. Was elected one of the editors of the current year. Associated with me are Jones and Wilcox of ’73 — two splendid fellows…
Creswell did find the necessary funds, and was eventually graduated. Later he achieved considerable success as an editor both in Grand Rapids and Detroit, but that is another story.
A later alumnus who remembered the Bell House was Harvey Ott ’89, distinguished scientist and great benefactor of the College. He wrote in Io Triumphe in 1952 that when he first came to Albion with his parents in 1876 there were four buildings on the campus: North Hall, the Chapel, and between them the center building. “Back of that was the Bell House, a small frame building with a belfry in which hung the bell formerly in the alumni office, and now at the entrance to the book store, a relic of old times. This bell was run each hour for the changes of classes. It was also rung at 9:30 P.M. I never found out why it was rung then unless it was to tell the students they could go to bed if they wanted to do so. This building was the home of the janitor. It also supplied a room as compensation for the student who was the bell ringer.” (Did the early rules, which, in the age of stove-heat in each student room, stated no fuel should be added to fires after 9:30 account for this hour?)
Both janitor and Bell House were natural centers for student deviltry. Woodson wrote in “Seminary Days” of the “great bell and of Titus, the bell ringer, and the woes of him due to the sins of a precious crew of mischievous lads,” and, later, in the same article, of the “robust, mighty, genial Sabin, the Steward”, and again of the “grip of the mighty Sabin, or the watchful Titus.”
The bell also served as a fire alarm, and Fred Groff, in “Albion of Yesterday” Io Triumphe, May 1948, said the older boys of the town and the College thought it a great joke to break into the Bell House at midnight to ring the bell and to enjoy the resulting confusion.
Even the girls were involved. In January, 1870, the College Standard, an early short-lived (1868-70) student publication, had the following, “On New Year’s Eve a number of young ladies, boarding at the Hall, desired to express their joyous emotion at the dawn of the new year, concluded to employ the college bell as a medium, and having succeeded, by the exercise of a considerable strategy, in extending a rope from a third story window to the clapper, they were jubilant and with happy anticipation anxiously awaited the midnight hour that their joy might culminate. But, alas, how uncertain are all our plans! Some ungallant fellow had released the clapper and tied the rope to a post, so their longest pulls, their strongest pulls, and their pulls together were of no avail.”
On January 5, 1871, however, success was sweet. The Annalist a student publication (May, 1870-Oct. 1874) published a sequel. “On the night of the 31st ult., the ladies of the Hall having by some means introduced into one of the windows a rope, the other end of which connected with the clapper of the bell, celebrated the death of the old year and the birth of the new in a very successful manner.”
But fifty years of varied use the Bell House had served its day. On December 28, 1891, the Detroit Free Press, in its Albion correspondence, published the following feature article, “The Gymnasium is an assured thing this time. Last evening the board of trustees met in semi-annual session, and one of the most important things they did was to order the erection of a gymnasium. The site will be that upon which rests at present the Bell House. The latter will be removed, and in its place, and about ten feet nearer the road, will be erected one of the handsomest gymnasiums in the state.” In 1892, or shortly thereafter, the Bell House was bought by the S.A. Wilder & Son Lumber Company which planned to use it for storage purposes. A photograph exists showing the building after it was moved.
Faint indeed are the echoes and memories that come down from those early lusty times, those turbulent, hardy, but gay years. Many of the records were destroyed in the disastrous fire of December 16, 1922 in Robinson Hall, the old central building where the Registrar’s office was then located. Certainly, however, there is still enough evidence to show that the Bell House, though regarded as but a poor relation of the elegant brick Hall, was for half a century a busy educational servant to students, janitorial staff, and faculty. As Albion’s first building it merits honor in all its austere colonial simplicity.
-Written by Audrey Kenyon Wilder, n.d.