COCHRANTON — With the country on partial shutdown during this pandemic, the early morning hours are eerily silent.
The chirping of birds as the wind blows through the trees and the lack of internal combustion motors droning along reminds us what it must have been like at the turn of the 20th century. The recent incentive by the Pennsylvania Mayors Association (Bells Across Pennsylvania), recognizing the front-line workers battling the COVID-19 virus with the ringing of bells, revived a sound that resonated from our past.
In the days before telephones, radio and television, the bells tucked in the steeples and towers of the community were used to alert the masses to happenings in and around the community. The Borough of Cochranton had five large bells that were in operation as the community welcomed the new century in 1900.
They were all confined in a roughly two-block area — the community fire bell at the borough building, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church, the United Presbyterian Church, and the school bell of the Cochranton Academy.
The first bell in the community appears at the school house. In 1861, school board records report that a community solicitation of funds yielded $15.05 and with the board contributing $8.62, a bell was secured for the school building at a total expenditure of $23.67. This single-story building was erected in the 1850s and was located where the new public library is on Pine Street.
The borough next purchased a fire bell in 1879 after having established a community fire department. The bell, delivered in a wagon in 1880, was purchased from the A. Fulton & Sons Co. in Pittsburgh for the sum of $93.75. It was placed initially on some type of tower on a lot east of the present United Methodist Church. This was the site of a rented pound lot, used to store the fire equipment and to provide space to corral animals found running loose in the town.
The remaining bells were found in the steeples of the churches. The original wood frame structure of the United Presbyterian Church, completed in 1833, appears to have added a bell tower in 1871 to its location at the corner of Smith and Pine streets. Diary excerpts from early pioneer John Cochran note the raising of their bell on Aug. 26 of that year and record its first tolling in 1879, 34 strokes, marking each year of the life of Lizzie Tingley.
In the late 1880s, the three major churches each built new impressive houses of worship and purchased new bells to call together their congregations. Leading the way were the United Presbyterians, replacing their wood structure in 1888. They placed their bell in a second-story belfry on the southwest corner of their new brick building. The Presbyterians, on South Franklin Street, placed their bell in an open steeple framed building in 1891, within sight of the new United Methodist Church on East Adams. Both finished about the same time. Their bell was more than 60 feet off the ground above the main entrance to the church.
New construction would affect the location of the fire bell. Forced to abandon the pound lot, the borough constructed a new community building and rented property from Hugh Smith to accommodate the new two-story frame building. The bell, transferred to the roof of the structure, was located on the corner that is the present location of the Cochranton Volunteer Fire Department.
As the community continued to grow, the need for a new two-story school building was evident. The Cochranton Academy, constructed in 1884, was erected on Pine Street, opposite the United Presbyterian Church. This large wood-frame structure accommodated the primary grades on the ground floor with the high school department upstairs. The bell tower stretched 68 feet above the school grounds. The community raised $125 to purchase a larger, more suitable bell for the school. That spring, ceremonies would recognize the first graduating class of Cochranton High School (1885).
In September 1899, Cochranton Borough Council purchased property on North Franklin Street, the present location of the Cochranton Post Office, and moved the city building to the new location. The treasury shows a $27.44 debit for a new foundation and moving charges. The community now had a new location for their fire bell and equipment storage.
These bells played an important role in the community. In the morning the school bell rang to announce the beginning of school, at noon it announced the lunch break, and in the afternoon the conclusion of the school day. During the school term it sounded again in the evening at 8 as a curfew bell to alert students to clear the streets. This was made official by the council passing Ordinance No. 44 in 1900.
The academy and its bell were destroyed by fire in 1917 and a new brick building replaced it. Included in the original U-shaped design was a new bell concealed on the roof; when the school was razed in 1968, the bell was recovered and is now part of the collection of the Cochranton Heritage Society.
The borough moved to the old Grange building on East Adams Street in 1939 and built new garages to accommodate the growing fire department. The original bell followed and for a short period of time rang out the call for help, unique in the manner that when the rope was pulled the striker moved back and forth, double striking the bell, creating an eerie-pitched sound. Eventually the warning system was changed to an electric siren, mounted over the bell enclosure on the building’s roof. When the building was torn down to make way for the current borough offices, the bell was placed in the care of the Cochranton Heritage Society and joins the school bell in the Railroad Museum at the Cochranton Fairgrounds.
The church bells are still on the property but only one, at the United Methodist Church, is still hanging from in its original steeple. The United Presbyterian Church was razed in 1969 as part of the building project for the new church and the bell was placed on the Smith Street side of the property along with the original date stone from the building. The former Presbyterian Church passed in ownership to the Christian Missionary Alliance in 1961 and as part of their building project was dismantled in 2017. The large bell with its rope wheel sits proudly aside the new church building.
The recent tolling of bells brings our attention to an event that occurred over 100 years ago. Their power of communication was powerful enough to be preserved in the history of the community.
On Nov. 11, 1918, the Cochranton Telephone Co. received the joyous news of the signing of the armistice ending World War I at 4:30 a.m. When Constable Orrin Heath was alerted to the news, he quickly notified the bell ringers of the community. The silence of the early morning was broken as the three church bells, the school bell and the fire bell began an uninterrupted tolling, bewildered residents emerged to the streets. The sound even carried to the countryside, bringing rural neighbors rushing into town to discover the reason for the commotion. All were greeted with the joyous news of the hour as cheers erupted throughout the borough. The church bells later in the morning announced impromptu gatherings to mark the end of the world conflict.
Nearly 30 years ago, as the school bell was being readied for display in the museum, several older members of the community began to reminisce about the role the bells played in the past. They recalled how each bell in the community had a unique sound and tone that was easily identifiable from a distance.
These are icons of a simpler time; their presence recalls those many joyous and tragic events that have impacted our community.
Susan Armburger is president of Cochranton Area Public Library and Cochranton borough manager. Mark Roche is mayor of Cochranton, a community historian and local businessman.