The University of Iowa
The University of Iowa News Services Home News Releases UI in the News Subscribe to UI News Contact Us


5 Old Capitol
Iowa City IA 52242
(319) 335-0557; fax (319) 335-0558

Release: Immediate

Old Capitol's original bell rings in Founders Day

IOWA CITY, Iowa--The original bell from the tower of Old Capitol - a symbol of change and celebration on the University of Iowa campus for decades - will once again ring at the Founders Day Sesquicentennial Birthday Party, 4-7 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 25, at the Old Capitol.

The bell will be brought out from safekeeping to commemorate Gov. Terry Branstad's signing of a resolution recognizing the contributions the University of Iowa has made to the state over the last 150 years. The signing caps a weekend of activities celebrating Founders Day. "It will be a wonderful addition to the whole week's celebration," says Ann Smothers, director of the Old Capitol Museum. "We plan to ring the original 1844 bell right after Gov. Branstad signs the resolution."

But the significance of Iowa's original bell goes beyond the signings of documents and parties. Its history is tied as closely to the founding of the University of Iowa as is Old Capitol itself.

During the original bell's 17 years of operation, it served as the harbinger of beginnings and endings, celebration and sadness, victory and defeat.

The bell originated in New York, where it was cast in 1844 and then was sent by boat to Chicago and by wagon to Iowa City. First owned by the First Presbyterian Church of Iowa City, it was purchased in 1845 for $76.45 and installed for $9 in the Mechanics' Academy, the University of Iowa rented classroom space. Mechanics' Hall sat where a wing of Seashore Hall now stands.

The massive bell was transferred to the dome of Old Capitol after the university was founded in 1847. In the early days, the bell was rung by a rope, which was attached to a pulley on the bell wheel.

For unknown reasons, the bell was replaced by a second bell in 1862, which soon cracked. That bell was replaced by a third bell--the current bell--in Old Capitol in 1864. Less than 20 years after the original bell was purchased for less than $80 and installed for less than $10, this third bell cost more than $500 and cost $40 to be installed in the loft of Old Capitol.

The 1948 class gift was equipment to automatically ring the Old Capitol bell. It was installed in 1950. For more than 100 years, Old Capitol's janitor had had to climb a ladder 22 times day to ring the bell by hand; now it rings automatically.

Bells have announced more than just the beginning and ending of classes. Throughout America's and the university's history, the bells rang in the ending of the Civil and both World Wars, ringing continuously for several days; rang for three days and nights after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1864; celebrated Iowa's first Big Ten football championship in 1900; rang 200 times in honor of the signing of the U.S. Constitution; rang continuously for 10 minutes to open each academic year; and rang in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.

Once the original bell was replaced, it served as a victory bell, which chimed the scores of the annual Iowa-Iowa State football games. It mysteriously disappeared in 1913 and resurfaced 20 years later.

Former Iowa Director of Athletics Ed Lauer, on the urging of an old alumnus, instituted a search for the bell in 1933. Art Smith, superintendent of buildings and grounds at the university, discovered the bell hanging in the belfry of the Universalist Church, which stood on the northeast corner of Iowa Avenue and Clinton Street, where Phillips Hall is today.

In commemoration of Iowa's and Ames' (now Iowa State) intrastate battles on the football field, the historic 1844 bell was suggested by Iowa alumni as a victory trophy going to the annual winner in the tradition of Michigan and Minnesota's annual battle for the "Little Brown Jug" and Indiana and Purdue's "Old Oaken Bucket."

But following the 1933 Iowa-Ames game, the bell again disappeared and was not mentioned at the time of the following year's game (according to a 1977 Iowa City Press-Citizen newspaper clipping).

This time it was discovered more than 30 years later in a storage closet in the basement of the Old Armory by Ben Irwin of the university's physical plant department.

"The bells have terrific significance to the university and Old Capitol," Smothers says. "They are as much a part of history as anything else associated with the university."