A Fourth of July parade passes in front of City Hall, with the bell tower on top.

Ancestors, Legends & Time

The bell on City Hall had supporters, but it was taken down anyway

Jeanne Newby

I did a story back in 2000 concerning the bell that used to sit in a bell tower on top of the City Hall at First and Main streets. I had received some memorabilia of Juanita Billings from Pauline Jenkins and in that stack of memories was the story of the “Curfew Bell” otherwise known as the Webb City Fire Bell. It was really interesting hearing about the bell and even more interesting to know of the controversy that was attached to the bell.

The bell controversy began when it was determined that the bell from Central School on Webb Street would be removed in 1936. It was a beautiful old school bell that rang for school functions and activities. After the bell was removed, the subject came up about the grand old bell sitting on top of City Hall. 

Mrs. William Hunter, on Aug. 21, 1936, wrote a poem about the bell.

The Curfew Bell

Upon the top of city hall
Still stands the curfew bell.
The city solons (a wise and skillful lawgiver) say that it’s not safe.

We must take it down and sell.

We need a siren, so they say,
Just like the other towns around.
That curfew bell has had its day,
And now must come down.

That old tower it just won’t hold
That curfew bell no more
To have such ancient things in town
It sure does make them sore.

It’s been an awful faithful friend
And filled its mission well.
Now tell me true what would we do
Without the curfew bell?

Why not get a board or two
And fix that tower up right.
So it will hold our ancient bell
And let it ring with all it’s might?

That curfew bell it sure does know
That history of this town.
Could it but talk and ’spress itself
It would not want to be taken down.

If that old bell were silent
And never more could ring.
We’d never know just when t’was nine.
To take it down would be a sin.

That old time-honored curfew bell
Is a relic of the past:
It brings back memories of good old days
When the town was boomin’ fast.

Why take it down from it’s pinnacle
Where it’s it reigned for fifty years I guess
It’s never failed when duty called
To ring its very best.

The siren is fine in case of fire.
And performed its duty well.
But just for Old time’s sake, my friend, Let’s keep the curfew bell.

Threats to remove the bell calmed down for a while and then two years later, the city announced that they would be selling the fire bell. The city bell that had been above the city hall and fire department since 1890.

Another poem was written and shared by Thomas McEntee as he pleaded not to sell the bell.

The Old Fire Bell

What’s this I hear?
They’re going to sell!
The old Webb City fire bell!
Have we so civic pride? Alas,
That this should ever come to pass!
Sell our bell? Oh surely, no!
We must not, cannot let it go.
You say ’tis but a lifeless thing
Ah yes! But we who have heard it ring
These many years since first ’twas hung,
And in its lofty tower swung,
Have learned in that old bell to see
The guardian of our safety.
For while at home in peace we slept,
That dreaded fire-demon crept.
This trusted servant of us all
Gave warning with its clamorous call.
And now, in gratitude we’d sell
Our faithful friend the fire bell.
“’Tis nine o’clock,” the old bell said,
“Time all good children were in bed.
You’ve had a busy day of fun,
So hurry home, now everyone,
And I my vigil here will keep,
While you repose in slumber deep.”
The bell is old, but still is young!
It’s hollow throat and brazen tongue
Still speaks to us in tones as clear
As when spoke in yesteryear.
Why should we bid that voice be still?
To let some stranger feel its thrill!
Sell our old fire bell? For shame!
That such a thought to us e’er came!
There’s no man living can defend
Such treatment of so true a friend.
Let’s pledge ourselves we’ll NEVER sell
Our old friend Webb City fire bell!

Both of the poems failed to accomplish the task at hand, according to the June 8, 1939, article in the Sentinel:

Webb City’s curfew bell at the city hall, where it was placed 49 years ago, has rung for its last time, and was removed Tuesday by a junk dealer. The 1,000 pound brass bell had tolled the 9 o’clock curfew hour since 1890 until late last year. The bell also used to tell the citizens here that there was a fire in some part of the city, as it was always rung as firemen left the station after being summoned to extinguish the blaze. The city council voted last year to abandoned the bell because of its weight and the damage it was causing to the city hall building.

When Joplin was losing the Emerson School bell in 1931, people showed up at the school board meeting to express their heart-rending stories. It seems their daily lives were ruled by that school bell. Children were told when to arrive at school. Housewives set their clocks by the bell. They baked their pies by the bell. One disgruntled resident went so far as to say his chickens laid their eggs by the bell. And now the bell is silent. It went by the way of worldly things when the 40-year old Emerson School made way for the new building.

It has also been noted that when the Webb City fire bell was unable to be found after removal… Webb City Fire Department now has the old bell residing in a place of honor.

I don’t know what happened to the old Central School bell.

Jeanne Newby

A lot of us appreciate the Bradbury Bishop Fountain, but Jeanne actually worked behind the counter making sodas while she was in high school. She knows everything about Webb City and is a member of the Webb City R-7 School Board.

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