Iowa College Bell in the foreground, with an audience at the commencement stage behind it

The Iowa College Bell

The bell rung at many Grinnell College ceremonies is the original Iowa College bell.

It rang out in the first and second locations of Iowa College in Davenport. According to the late Joseph Wall ’41, professor emeritus of history, when Iowa College was relocated to Grinnell, the bell was still hanging in the building that was the second home of Iowa College. Moving the bell would have been too expensive, so it stayed in that building, which was eventually torn down to make way for a high school.

The June 1932 issue of Grinnell and You tells the story of Dr. Harry Downer, class of 1882, who had worked for 18 years to procure the original bell for the College.

The bell had been discovered in the basement of the school that stood on the second Iowa College site on Harrison Street in Davenport and was then hung in another Davenport school. Downer, a member of the Davenport school board, talked the board into letting him have the bell if he could find a suitable replacement. Downer tried to find a replacement bell but making such a substitution would have been quite expensive. To add to Downer’s struggle, a new school board had been elected, and it felt it didn’t have to keep the promise made to him. The principal of the school where the bell hung heard of Downer’s quest and declared, “If that old bell was worth so much to Grinnell it was worth even more to Davenport, and it would be taken down only over [my] dead body.”

Downer, however, was undaunted. “He rallied his clans, and fortified with fine old Davenport ‘gemütlichkeit,’ made a raid on the schoolhouse in the dead of a dark and stormy night, and rescued the bell, so long held in captivity.”

On June 4, 1932, Downer presented the bell to the College at an alumni chapel. Dr. Julia Hill, class of 1909, granddaughter of the Rev. James J. Hill, who was one of the Iowa Band, the group of missionaries that founded Iowa College, accepted the bell on behalf of the College. The article also reported, “The bell is an exceptionally fine bronze bell of about 450 pounds weight. It is a minor third lower in pitch than the bell in the Chicago Hall tower, and it has a wonderfully sweet tone which will chime perfectly with the other. It is not an ordinary bell, and even without its historical association it would be a welcome addition to the campus. It is hoped that it may soon be hung in the tower, to be used in a peal along with the other bell on distinguished occasions.” 

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