HomeA History of the Original Watauga Academy Bell

A History of the Original Watauga Academy Bell

by Dr. Gary R. Boye


In January of 2003, the following well-known photograph of Watauga Academy was part of a display celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of what is now the Erneston Music Library:


Upon seeing this image, former Dean of the School of Music, Dr. William Spencer, remarked to the author rather off-handedly: "You know, we have the original bell from the Watauga Academy down in the Rehearsal Room." His explanation for how it came to the School of Music seemed plausible: after the fire that destroyed the Academy on 22 November 1946, the remains of the steeple where the bell hung had fallen off to the side. While blackened by smoke, the steel bell had withstood the heat of the fire and was pulled from the wreckage by Crater Marsh, the head of the college's physical plant, and placed in storage.

At the time of the fire, the old Academy building was being used as the Music Building by the College. The fire destroyed not only badly needed classroom space and the music library, but costly equipment owned by both the College and the local high school. The loss was not just monetary; much of the institutional history and the physical origins of the College were gone. This appeared to have hit the College's founder and then President, B.B. Dougherty, particularly hard:   


. . . . Much high school and college equipment, including new instruments for the entire high school band purchased last fall as well as the music library, pianos, and various other musical instruments were completely destroyed. . . . The old academy was built in 1899 and was the beginning of Appalachian State Teachers college. Dr. Dougherty, president of the college, taught school during the day and hauled lumber at night to build it. Dr. Dougherty wept as he watched flames destroy the building. Thousands of men and women have attended classes there during the last 48 years. . . . [Lenoir News Topic 11/26/1946, p. 1]

The Academy was not the only building damaged in the fire. According to the night watchman (Watauga Democrat 11/28/1946 p. 1), the flames were seen first on the second floor of the Music Building (Watauga Academy) and then spread next door to the Art Building--originally Science Hall, built in 1911. Both buildings were totally destroyed in the fire, but a new Music and Arts Building was planned for the vacant space, to incorporate both departments.

University Archivist Hal Keiner interviewed Dean Spencer later in the spring of 2003 and further details were added to the story: in 1952, the Music Department began planning for its upcoming move into the newly constructed Music and Arts Building (later, the I.G. Greer Building). On the lookout for appropriate furnishings for the new space, Spencer met with Marsh at the storage building. Here, Marsh showed Spencer the bell and told him about its rescue. Intrigued with the story--and in need of a good bell for occasional orchestral use--Spencer took charge of the relic and had one of Marsh's carpenter's, L. C. Oliver, make a cradle for it. The bell as it existed in its 1950s cradle was photographed here by Music Building Manager Brent Bingham in 2017:


Confirmation of the story can be found in a contemporary newspaper account of the bell's use in a 1956 concert:

Ancient Bell To Feature Concert

The original bell that was housed in the steeple of the Watauga Academy built in 1899 will be used in the concert given by the Appalachian State Teachers College Band next Tuesday evening at 8 o'clock, in the Fine Arts Building.

Probably the only object left from the original building which marked the beginning of ASTC, the bell has been stored since the fire which destroyed the Academy in 1946, which at that time was being used for music classes. The bell has been restored and mounted on a frame for display. It will be used for the 'bell' in the march 'Liberty Bell' by John Philip Sousa.

Many people in the surrounding area will no doubt recall the sound of this bell as its tone echoed throughout the valley. [Watauga Democrat 5/3/1956, p. 1]

The Bell

The only marking on the bell itself is a raised numeral "6." The bell measures about 13" high and about 23" across at the bottom. The bracket that holds the bell is painted a now faded gold and has raised letters on it saying: "Rumsey & Co., Seneca Falls, NY." Neil Goeppinger of the American Bell Association provided the author with more information, based on photos sent by e-mail in 2003:

At 23" of diameter, your bell is a school bell. Cast iron and cast steel bells were for schools if they were between 20" and 28" of diameter. Those bells were cast with a thinner wall so the sound of the bell was higher (dingyier, if you will) and thus the population didn't mistake the school bell for a church or fire bell.  Remember, this is before sirens, radio, etc and bells were the main means of public alert and announcement.

He went on to say that Rumsey & Co. began in Seneca Falls, NY, but moved to New York City sometime between 1882 and 1887. They were in operation until around 1906.

A 1902 catalog—contemporary with the building of Watauga Academy—contains our bell in almost all of its details:



The yoke is shaped the same as the Watauga Academy bell, although the tolling attachment apparently did not survive the fire or was later discarded. Note that a no. 6 bell is listed as 25" in diameter, 2" larger than our bell, but this size might have been an unlisted option or the diameter might simply have been measured differently. The important fact remains that the bell is clearly of a size and tone distinguishing it as a school bell, not a church, civic, or fire bell. And since school bells of this type and size disappear after this 1902 catalog, the date fits perfectly for the building of the Academy.

Historic References to the Watauga Academy Bell

The Watauga Academy building was constructed in 1899: "It [the new school building] contains a hall, two recitation rooms, a primary department, a society hall for young women, a society hall for young men, a music room, an auditorium and a bed room." [Watauga Democrat 11/2/1899, p. 2] No reference to the steeple or a bell can be found until a few years later, when the Academy was now officially the Appalachian Training School: "A system of electric bells now connect the school buildings, which lets everyone know the length of the periods better than the old hand bell did." [Watauga Democrat 11/13/1913, p. 2]

By 1932, the building was the core of the quickly growing Appalachian State Teachers College and in need of repair:


The authorities at the Appalachian State Teachers College are being complimented by the citizenry for their action in keeping the old academy building, the first on the campus in good repair. This season the building has been treated to a new coat of paint both inside and out, heat has been provided from the central plant, and even a new metal spire was placed atop the superstructure which houses the great bell. [Watauga Democrat 10/13/1932, p. 4]

More details about the bell are added by reminiscences a few years after the building had been destroyed by the 1946 fire:


Herman McNeil, son of our late townsman, Bynum McNeil, who resides in Mansfield, Pa., visits in the county, and recalls that he and this scribe started their schooling together down at the old Academy building, when the relatively few students gathered for a peek at the three r's under conditions which would be considered primitive in this day of improved faculties, facilities and methods ...

He recalled . . . The old recitation bench, the twin bannisters in the hall, down which everybody slid, and the great bell in the tower, which turned over now and then and had to be righted ... [Watauga Democrat 3/13/1952, pp. 1, 4]

Exactly why the bell "turned over" is not known, but apparently climbing into the steeple to right it was a frequent enough occurrence to be remembered decades later. References to the clear tone of the bell indicate a society more attuned to bell ringing of different types and for different purposes. Even to modern ears, the Academy bell, being smaller and made of steel, sounds quite a bit different than larger, more common bronze bells. 

Other Bells in Boone

While there can be no doubt that the bell that was in the Broyhill Music Building in 2017 is the original Watauga Academy bell, much confusion still exists. Stories that the so-called "Victory," "Spirit," or "Founder's Bell," which sat in front of Anne Belk Hall at that time, is the original Academy bell are persistent but entirely incorrect. An article in the school newspaper in the 1980s perpetuated, or perhaps started, this rumor:

Bell remains a forever silent reminder / By Andrea Anderson

. . . The old victory bell at Appalachian State has many stories connected with it, not all of which can be clearly substantiated, but they make for interesting thought anyway. It was a gift to what was then Appalachian State Teachers College from the 'A' Club (the letter club) in the 1930s, probably 1937. It was originally hung in the belfry of Watauga Academy, the grass-roots beginnings of the university, an all-wooden building. . . . [The Appalachian, Homecoming Issue 1986, p. 4B]

Pictured here, one can tell at a glance that the bell would have been entirely wrong for a school bell:

Made of bronze and much larger than the steel bell in Watauga Academy, this bell clearly existed outside of the Academy building before 1946. And before 1946, the original Academy bell was still in the steeple where it belonged. Another article from the student newspaper comes closer to the truth, but misses the existence of the actual Academy bell:

Spirit bell is focal point for Mountaineer pride / By Mary Gates

. . . "There have been two bells in the history of ASU. One of the bells went up in 1937 outside the old men's gymnasium. Currently it sits beside the Administration Building. The other bell was part of Watauga Academy and went down with the building when it burned. Traditionally, the bells were rung after an athletic victory. . . . [The Appalachian 10/22/1987 p. 1]

So we have two bells, but only the bronze "Founders Bell" had been located in 1987--the identification of the Academy bell then sitting in the new Broyhill Music Building apparently already having been forgotten. The yoke on the "Founders Bell" identifies the maker as the C.S. Bell Co. in Hillsboro, Ohio:

This company operated under this name from 1894 into the 1970s (see https://www.towerbells.org/HillsboroFoundry.html). According to an article in the student newspaper from 1971 (Appalachian 10/15/1971 p. 15), this bell was originally in the cafeteria of the Appalachian State Normal School in the late 1920s. 

Aside from the two bells connected with the school, there were several other bells in Boone, beginning with a large bell in the Masonic Hall: "Marked improvements are being made in and around Boone. The masonic hall building has been handsomely painted, and a new $65 bell placed in the belfry." [Lenoir Topic 11/13/1879, p. 3] The Methodist Church also had a bell. It was taken down in the 1920s but replaced in 1958 ["KING STREET / By ROB RIVERS . . . An Old Bell .. Rings Out Again" Watauga Democrat 7/31/1958, p. 4] The second Watauga County Court House (1875) had a bell which was later moved to the third (1905) Court House: "The old court house bell that has swung in the same place for nigh unto 30 years was taken down yesterday morning and given a more stately position on the new structure." [Watauga Democrat 3/23/1905, p. 3] After the demolition of the third court house in 1967, this bell appears to have disappeared [Watauga Democrat 8/28/1969, p. 4]. 

No doubt there were other church and school bells around the town and county . . . 

Historic Potential of the Watauga Academy Bell

As the first building of what was to become Appalachian State University, the Watauga Academy occupies an iconic place in the history of the school. To the author's knowledge, no other remnant from this building survived the fire of 1946. Aside from the Dougherty House, which has been moved out of its historic location and, of course, was a private residence, no other building connected to the early history of the University survives. To be able to trace the bell from its use in the first campus building in 1899 to two music buildings, first I.G. Greer and then the Broyhill Music Building, makes it of extraordinary historical importance to the University. It was a serviceable orchestral bell, although most such instruments are much more expensive bronze bells. But its importance as a historic artifact far outweighs the practical use that has been made of it.

Literally rising from the ashes, the Watauga Academy Bell survives from the very origins of what was to become Appalachian State University.


A New Home for the Watauga Academy Bell

In August 2018 I was contacted by Mandy Robertson of Chancellor Everts' office for more information about the two campus bells. Reading the information on this page, they made the quick decision to rehouse the bell appropriately and move it to the Academic Building where it now sits:


Thanks to David Cook, Hank Foreman, and all those involved in rehousing the old bell and using it to promote the history of the University. 

Dr. Gary R. Boye
Music Librarian
Appalachian State University

May 2017, updated July and August 2018

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The author wishes to thank a number of people who have helped me unfold this story over the past 14 years, especially the late Dean William Spencer, as well as Dean William Harbison, Dean William Pelto, Dean James Douthit, Associate Dean Jay Jackson, Brent Bingham, and former University Archivist Hal Keiner. I would also like to thank the staff of the University Archives and the Appalachian Collection, especially Dean Williams, Fred Hay, Greta Browning and Pam Mitchum, as well as Neil Goeppinger and the American Bell Association and Kathy Jans-Duffy of the Seneca Falls Historical Society. Finally, thanks to Dea Rice for help with the web page portion of the project.