Excelsior School bell returns to Montgomery County

Decades after its former use, and after spending some years in Arizona, the former Excelsior School bell has finally come back home to Montgomery County.
Currently, the bell is at the Montgomery County History Center in Red Oak, under the curation of Dave and Roxanne McFarland.
Efforts to return the bell were spearheaded by Tom Woods, Jr., who resides in Phoenix. Woods said his father started at the Excelsior School in 1932, and stayed at the school until a year before it closed in 1940. According to Woods, his dad’s father passed away at 50, and a month after that, the house in Wales burned, and his father and family moved into Red Oak.
Woods said the bell came into the possession of his family around 1941, when the school was closed and the items inside were offered to take.
“My dad, Tom Woods, Sr., lived on a farm about a mile from the Excelsior one-room schoolhouse going towards Wales. When the school closed down, they wanted the bell. The school had the old desks, and so people took some of those, but my dad got the bell, and that bell remained at the family farm in the barn until dad sold the farm in the 1990s,” Woods said.
From there, Woods said the bell ended up joining his father at his new home in Arizona.
“When he was selling the farm, I brought my kids there as they’d never seen Red Oak before. When we got to the farm, the tenant there told us hello and said stand back, and he picked up that heavy bell himself. It actually tilted the rear of my Ford Explorer at the time. We drove the bell back to Phoenix,” commented Woods.
The bell was kept in his parent’s garage until his mother passed away a few years ago, and then it was in possession of Woods himself.
“It’s been in my garage, and I’m planning on moving permanently and I couldn’t take it with me. I figured it’s over a century old, and I wanted to make sure it didn’t get thrown away, so I made contact with Dave McFarland at the History Center and arranged to get the bell brought back to Red Oak,” advised Woods. “This bell in the past 20 years has traveled close to 5,000 miles going back and forth.
Woods’ family has a rich history in the area. His great-grandfather, Griffeth Thomas, migrated from overseas to Wales in Montgomery County, and fought at the Vicksburg in the Civil War.
“I’ve got the Welsh-English translated bible that my great-grandfather had. It’s just remarkable. I’ve found a lot of interesting things since my mom passed away. They kept everything. It was part of their culture. They bought things once. That’s why they kept the bell for all the years that they did. They thought at some point someone might be able to use it again, and here it is,” Woods explained. “It’s been a memory rush for sure. I was born in Omaha, and my grandparents stayed in Montgomery County till the day they died. My grandfather on my mom’s side worked for the Murphy Calendar Company for 45 years and ended up retiring as their treasurer in the 1960s.”
McFarland said the Excelsior bell will be in good company with bells from other area schools.
“We have the old Lincoln School bell, and the bell from the Stennett School located up north of here. I want to get it sandblasted and painted and get a stand for it so it can ring again with the other bells,” McFarland said. “Once the weather warms up we’ll do that work, and set it up where we can use it.”
Woods said getting the bell from Phoenix to Red Oak proved to be an adventure all in it’s own.
“After Dave said they’d take the bell, I started calling places in an effort to get it from point A to point B. Some of the places said because the bell was so small, they wouldn’t ship it, and most of the shipping places wouldn’t ship interstate, they would only ship intrastate,” Woods advised.
One day, while he was driving, Woods said he managed to come across the solution to his shipping problems.
“I was driving past the big orange containers from U-Haul, and I was able to arrange shipping through them. It started off pretty slick, until they came to pick it up. Then it seemed like I was getting all sorts of calls of it being in various places that weren’t Red Oak. It managed to get to Council Bluffs, but from there, getting it to Red Oak was a bit of a challenge,” stated Woods.
McFarland said he spend a fair amount of time being transferred around various U-Haul supervisors.
“I got transferred to a guy in central Nebraska who said it wasn’t in his district, and things got into a limbo. I was calling Council Bluffs and Omaha, Neb., and not having any luck. Finally, they put me in contact with a guy in North Platte, Neb., of all places. He was the one who said we needed to get this straightened out, so he put me in touch with someone in Eastern Iowa. Those two were extremely helpful. They knew where to pull the strings, and get got the final transport going,” McFarland commented.
Woods paid a visit to the Montgomery County History Center on Dec. 4 and got to see the bell and visit with McFarland in person. Woods said he was pleased at the results.
“I’m glad this has worked out. I know mom and especially dad would be thrilled to know that the bell was back in Red Oak, especially in a place like this. It brought back a lot of memories for him, especially when he’d stub his toe on it because we were keeping it in his garage,” joked Woods. “I’ve been anxious beyond belief to get back to Red Oak and see the bell in it’s new home at the history center. “
Woods added it means a lot to him that thanks to his father’s insight, they were able to keep the bell.
“I feel like most people would have thrown it away or melted down into scrap. But my dad was different. He was very proud. It feels good to bring the bell back to where it belongs,” Woods commented.
McFarland said he is thrilled that the Woods family maintained the bit of history of the Excelsior school.
“People hang onto the old school bells. A lot of people even keep them out in the yard. The Stennett bell, for example, hung in a tower of the yard of Wayne Stennett, and he used it to call the guys to lunch. When they built the school he donated the bell and they installed it at the school. It was returned to the Stennett house after the school closed, and then it disappeared for 15 years before it finally was brought to the history center,” McFarland said.
You can check out the bell and numerous other historical artifacts at the history center at  2700 N. 4th St. The center is open Tuesday-Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Visit the website at mocohistorycenter.org

The Red Oak Express

2012 Commerce Drive
P.O. Box 377
Red Oak, IA 51566
Phone: 712-623-2566 Fax: 712-623-2568

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