Palo Alto Weekly

- April 19, 2013

Ringing in history

Steve Staiger has collected 250 bells of all sorts

by Sue Dremann

Palo Alto Historian Steve Staiger clanged the old bell in his garden. He jerked the pull on a series of four mini bells that jangled musically under the porch overhang. On a hill above his home a train bell dinged, and a stiff wind bonged a small brass gong suspended above his patio.

Bells resonate with Staiger, 62. The former city reference librarian said they have a special place in history. In fact, the Liberty Bell traveled through Palo Alto not once, but twice, he said.

Perhaps that bit of trivia gives added significance to his souvenirs of the famous bell, including the metal one that also serves as a pencil sharpener. Staiger has a collection of 250 bells. They range from the kind schoolmarms rang in a one-room schoolhouse to ship and train bells and even one from El Camino Real.

Staiger, who is best-known around the city for his knowledge of Palo Alto history, acquired his first bell in 1964 from his family's farm in south Indiana.

"We picked up the bell and put it in the back of a Chevy Impala Super Sport convertible with three kids and two tortoises," he said.

The bell remained at his parents' Marin County home until about several years ago when his mother began divesting of possessions.

"It was probably from a school, and they used it on the farm," he said.

Bells are an attraction because they make noise; there is a masculine quality about the loud, resonating sound of a big bell, he said.

Historically bells were a primary means of communication. Bells sounded a warning that a train was coming or a ship was passing; they summoned children to school and field hands home to supper. Mission bells were a kind of clock the padres used to tell Indian slaves to come in for prayer or dinner, and bells helped find lost sheep and cattle.

Staiger's three young grandchildren love to discover and ring the 30 or 40 bells in the garden, he said. Of course, he has his favorites. The large El Camino Real bell came from a man who sells them to the state to mark the historic roadway. And he is particularly fond of an old bell-shaped sign from the California Mission Trails Association, he said.

Staiger recently wrote a story about the Liberty Bell's local journey, which is published in the April issue of the Tall Tree, the Palo Alto Historical Association's newsletter. The iconic cracked bell traveled by train from Philadelphia to the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, coming through Palo Alto on the Southern Pacific tracks, he said. It was the last time the bell had left Philadelphia, since souvenir seekers kept chipping off small pieces.

"The kind people of Philadelphia had a history of loaning the Liberty Bell to other cities for notable events. ... Each time the Liberty Bell returned to Philadelphia, the crack was bigger and the bell had lost some weight," he said.

Staiger also purchased a souvenir Liberty Bell button and ribbon from the 1915 exposition. He has a collection of smaller, desk-top-sized El Camino bells from the 1920s and '30s, and he is trying to collect a complete set of souvenir mission bells. If he gets one of each, he might create a campanile similar to one in a church bell tower, he said.

Staiger climbed the pathway to his terraced garden and clanged a large, black train bell. The sound resonated with a richness that seemed to fill the air in waves.

More utilitarian bells that are not designed for beautiful sound are made from iron, ceramic or steel. But "good" bells are made from a specific mixture called "bell metal." Churches paid big money for the glorious sound of such bells, which reminded parishioners of the heavens, he said.

Staiger and his wife, Luana, scour for collectibles at antique shops, fairs and flea markets. In addition to bells, he collects golf putters, flags and small replica boat models. Luana collects shelf-sized totem poles and other miniature replicas.

"This is what my wife and I do instead of hanging out at the local saloon," Staiger said.

There is one bell he does not have in his collection, however, and others he won't collect. He doesn't have a telephone bell, and he isn't interested in little glass bells that tinkle.

"The little ones don't make a manly sound," he said.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.

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