by Jim Mulligan
Reedley and the surrounding area have a long commitment to the education of their youth. Long before the unified school district existed, and even before the town had a name, a schoolhouse was erected on the Thomas Law Reed ranch; it was known as the Smith Ferry School. In what some called a twist of bad luck (which others may have deemed arson), an attempt to move that schoolhouse into the burgeoning city of Reedley came to an abrupt halt when the school burned to the ground in February of 1890. While the kids of the day may have been happy about the sudden lack of a schoolhouse, what may be called the area’s very first remote learning environment was set up at the United Brethren Church. No one wanted the youngsters to lose any critical learning opportunities. This setback did not dampen the hopes of bringing education to more of the town’s children. In short order, a new school building was erected at the site of the current Washington Elementary School.
The newly erected Reedley Grammar School would become one of the most prominent buildings in the young town of Reedley, a nod to the importance that education played early in the 20th century. Even Alta Joint Union High School, renamed Reedley High School in 1904, used the second floor of the building until Reedley High constructed its own campus in 1905. The building also had several name changes through the years. It was called West Side Elementary after the construction of East Side Elementary (now Lincoln School) until 1918, when it was renamed Washington Elementary School.
While the grand structure erected during the 1890-91 school year no longer exists, the current Washington Elementary School still sits on the property of the original. What still exists may be the oldest physical remnant of the educational system in Reedley: the bell that occupied the tower of the original building.
As 21st century citizens, we might not recognize the importance of the bell. In a time before any type of long-distance communication methods were common, or reliable, how would the start of school be signaled? The bell served as a reminder for the whole town that a new weekday was underway, and that school was about to begin. So prominent was this important communication device at the time, we have a written record of its installation and first sounding. The date was April 9, 1891, at 11:00 in the morning when the bell was tested and called out to the community for the first time. It was described in the local paper at the time: “It is a deep, rich toned bell, and can be heard for miles.” That first ringing was 130 years ago.
Some might question why an old hunk of metal, a relic of a bygone era, is important at all, or for that matter needs to be displayed and recognized. In and of itself, it may not be that important. The provenance it carries though, tells a rich story of our relatively young community. It is a reminder that before automobiles filled our streets, before fruit production was our industry, long before we had our own college, education was at the forefront of public thought. Our founders knew that encouraging the academic growth of their youth would mean positive progress. As local historian Kenneth Zech put it, “The bell links us to a past that give us lessons for the present and the future.”
While we don’t know exactly where it originated, we do know exactly where it sits today. It has a prominent position stationed on a pedestal in front of Washington Elementary School. It was removed from its bell tower in 1933, and its “deep, rich” tone has not been heard in Reedley since. The need for a school bell ended as new technologies emerged.
The bell symbolizes the strong commitment that Reedley and its surrounding communities have had to education for well over 100 years. Kings Canyon Unified School District plans to strike the mighty bell on its 130th anniversary. This symbolic and celebratory act will remind us all, especially during these trying times, that knowledge begets progress and understanding, and is essential for a productive society. Current Superintendent John Campbell said, “The importance of education has long been a pillar upon which our society was built. Recognizing this anniversary, we honor and pay tribute to all of those who have played a part in educating our children for the last 130 years.”
Please join us at Washington School for a short celebration and get an up-close experience of the ringing of the bell. While details are still being worked out, the event will likely be on April 9, 2021 at 11 a.m., exactly 130 years since its first ringing.
Be sure to check out more Reedley articles in our Reedley category.