The Tale of 2 Bells

This article tells the story of two bells in Exeter’s history.

The Stanley Bell

The bell in front of the Center for Art, Culture and History-Exeter (CACHE) was donated by Sharon Stanley Mumma to CACHE’s predecessor organization, the Exeter Historical Museum, in 2012. Sharon’s father, Chuck Stanley, rescued the bell from the City salvage yard in 1985. He had been driving by the city yard eyeing the bell since the early 1950s. For over 35 years he made requests of the City Council to purchase the bell. Finally, in 1985, the City Council told him that they’d give it to him if he made a donation to the Miller-Dofflemyer Boy Scout Building fund and the City Recreation Department. He wrote a $50 check to each and picked up his bell the next day.

Chuck gave the bell to his son Steven, who lived in Sacramento at the time. When Steven moved to Ohio, he graciously gave it to his sister Sharon Mumma in Visalia. The bell occupied a space in her backyard on their lake home and she occasionally rang it for passing boats. Sharon’s EUHS classmate, Peg Collins, a board member at the Exeter Art Gallery and Museum Association, as it was known at the time, suggested that she donate the bell as a piece of Exeter’s historical past. The donation was made in 2012 and Exeter’s Tom Caldwell, now of Thrasher Masonry, fabricated the base that holds it in front of the Mt. Whitney building. (Built by the Mt. Whitney Power and Electric Company in 1913; the building currently houses CACHE.)

Chuck’s curiosity led him to begin his own research on the bell. He discovered it had been manufactured by one of the premier bell manufacturers in the USA, the C.S. Bell Company in Hillsboro, Ohio in the late 1800s. While we have not been able to corroborate the story, it is said to have been transported by ship from the east coast around South America to Seattle where the ship sank. The bell was retrieved from the Puget Sound seafloor.

In 1905, the local Southern Pacific (SP) Railroad agent, Oakley Porter, was tasked with finding a bell suitable for sounding the alarm for fires in Exeter. He arranged for the bell to be delivered to Exeter. When the bell arrived, H.R. Stephens, local businessman and SP leader was given the job of installing the bell at the highest point in town. The highest point in town was the top of Mackey’s Livery Stable on F Street, near the current fire station. The bell was used for the next five years to summon volunteer firefighters to battle fires in Exeter.

On a warm June evening in 1910, that giant livery stable caught fire. Aubrey Mackey, the 14 year old son of the proprietor, happened to be asleep in the barn. As usual with the livery stable, it was full of wagons, horses, hay, equipment and more. Aubrey was awakened by the fire and quickly began to ring the bell but was only able to ring it three times before the heat became extreme. Unfortunately, the horses in the barn panicked and were unable to escape. Aubrey tried to get horses out of the barn but was only able to rescue one. To make matters worse, when the engineer went to turn on the water works, the pumping station for the town, it appeared to have been sabotaged and would not work. They had little water to do much more than try to keep the fire from spreading down the entire street. The town suspected an “incendiary” since it was the fourth unexplained fire in three months.

Most of the block burned, including the blacksmith shop on the corner of Palm and F Street (where the meat market is now), the coroner’s office (where the City Hall is now) and more. Thousands of locals showed up that night to helplessly watch the buildings on the block burn. Once the building collapsed the bell fell into the heap of ashes.

The next day the crowd stood around and wondered how they were going to deal with the 19 dead horses in the ashes. Henry Borgman got his rig and the next night, when the ashes had cooled down a bit, the men dragged each of the animals into a pit, poured gasoline on them and set them on fire. They continued until all the animals were consumed and filled the pit in with dirt. There’s likely horse skeletons underneath the fire station to this day. The bell was placed in storage where it remained until Chuck’s rescue 75 years later.

The 1913 Fire Bell

The Exeter fire fighters went without a bell for over two years when a new and much larger bell, the one currently on display in front of the fire department on F Street, arrived in 1913. A 30 foot high tower with a 30 foot square base was built and placed just north of the Board of Trade Building (current Chamber of Commerce building). The bell was heard from a much greater distance than the first bell. The new bell was much larger than the Stanley Bell.

In 1923, the City decided to go with the most modern equipment available when they ordered a siren to be placed above the fire station where it still resides. The city specified the siren must be heard over a 1.5 mile radius. The first siren was returned because it could only be heard for a couple of blocks. A second siren was ordered and installed to meet the specifications for distance. The siren had four tones and the town was instructed along with the firefighters that each tone signified a “ward” or section of town.

To keep birds from nesting in the siren canopy and to ensure it was always working, the City Fire Chief decided to set it off each day at 12 noon, a practice that continues today. In the early days, a man at the railroad station would call an agent maintaining the West Coast Master Clock in San Francisco for the exact time. An agent would relay the exact time to the fire station just before noon each day. Today, the siren is on a timer.

In the 1920s, the City of Exeter had a curfew ordinance in effect for children 16 or under. Children had to be inside their homes by 9 p.m. each night. The old fire bell was immediately put to use as the 9 p.m. curfew bell. The bell sounded different from Exeter’s school and church bells. The bell was in use as long as the ordinance was in effect and then retired to its current location in front of the fire station.