Fremont • For decades, a cast-iron bell summoned children to school, pealed on Christmas Eve and Independence Day, and helped celebrate Pioneer Day in this small community.
Then it went missing for more than half a century.
“There’s only one or two of us who have even seen the bell,” said Steve Taylor, 77, a local historian who teaches Utah history classes from his Fremont home.
He had given up hope of hearing it again; it was assumed the bell had been hauled to the dump or sold as scrap metal.
Then one day last year, a ranger at nearby Capitol Reef National Park referred a caller from Homer, Alaska, to Taylor.
The woman asked Taylor: Did he know of any Wayne County settlement that might have had a bell?
“Yes,” replied Taylor, who had been looking for it for more than 40 years and was delighted to learn its fate.
As Fremont (pop. 145) and its guests gather on July 24, the historic bell will be on display. And with luck and more fundraising, it will ring in next year’s Pioneer Day festivities in Fremont, about 200 miles southeast of Salt Lake City.
“We’ve started getting pledges,” Taylor said, “and hope to receive more donations when people come home for July 24th.”
Organizers plan to refurbish the bell and build a belfry at the town’s park pavilion, not far from where the bell once hung above a building of area stone.
When the building, which had served as a church and as a school, was torn down, the bell began its travels with three families with ties to Utah history.
‘A pretty important part’
Late in the 19th century, a two-story building was constructed in Fremont of welded tuff, a stone formed from semi-molten volcanic ash and quarried near the townsite.
After the merchant using it for a country store went out of business during the 1893 recession, settlers added a belfry and shipped in the bell.
“In those days, most people didn’t have clocks,” said Taylor, a Fremont native. “That made the bell a pretty important part of the community.”
Townspeople salvaged the bell when the building was demolished early last century.
Taylor remembers ringing the bell 15 minutes before classes. Sometimes he and other classmates were allowed to tug on a thick rope attached to its shoulder, striking a single harmonic note with its clapper.
Craig Chappell, 91, remembers that when he moved to Fremont in 1946, the newer school building was in its last days.
But it remained vacant for years. There was a well in the basement, and its water was piped to several nearby homes until a new system was installed.
When the building was torn down in the 1960s to make way for a modern red-brick chapel, the bell vanished.
The bell’s travels
As a girl, Pamela Brodie said in a telephone interview, she would ring the bell on visits to her great-uncle’s retirement farm in Fruita.
The hamlet known for its orchards is now a part of Capitol Reef, where tourists visit to pick fruit.
Worthen Jackson tended an orchard in Fruita and one of today’s groves is named for the Jackson family. Jackson had acquired the bell and eventually passed it along to Brodie’s great-uncle Dean R. Brimhall.
Brimhall was well-known in Utah. He had been director of research with the Civil Aeronautics Administration and president of Utah Pacific Airways. His father, George Henry Brimhall, was president of Brigham Young University from 1904 to 1921. The Brimhall building, at the historic south end of the campus, is named in honor of the elder Brimhall.
At Fruita, Dean Brimhall studied and preserved pictographs — ancient Indian writings — that decorate the colorful cliffs at Capitol Reef. He also was a leading force in upgrading Capitol Reef National Monument to national park status in 1971.
Shortly before Brimhall’s death the next year, he gifted the bell to his grandnephew Richard Brodie. Richard took the bell to his parents’ property — outside Los Angeles, in Pacific Palisades, Calif. — which he inherited after their death.
Richard’s mother, Fawn McKay Brodie, is best known in Utah as the author of “No Man Knows My History,” a look at contradictory evidence about the early life of Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She also wrote “Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History,” examining evidence related to accounts that Jefferson had taken his slave Sally Hemings as a concubine.
After Richard Brodie died, Pamela — his sister — came into possession of the bell. A designer for a family homebuilding business and conservationist, she had been named executor to her brother’s estate.
She wanted to find out where the bell had come from and had begun by calling Capitol Reef.
With the bell’s original home revealed, Pamela Brodie and her husband, Larry Smith, flew from Alaska to California, then drove the bell to Fremont, where Taylor was waiting with a tractor.
Taylor stored the 300-pound bell in a building owned by the Daughters of Utah Pioneers, a building also constructed with stones of welded tuff.
“I have many happy memories of the bell,” said Pamela Brodie. “It seemed selfish to sell it or keep it. Whatever it means to us will be more important if a lot of people are able to enjoy it as well.”
How to help
About 200 people are expected for a 9 a.m. breakfast on July 24 at Fremont’s town park, where the community’s returned, historic bell will be on display.
The public is invited and donations will be accepted for refurbishing the bell and building a belfry.
Contributions also may be sent to Elva Jackson, Camp Geyser, DUP, Fremont, UT 84747.