Peering at the Past Bells rang for Courts, Curfew and Calamities

Lee Epps

Before people had clocks and wristwatches, bells rang the time of day. Centuries later, but still before electricity provided conveniences such as fire sirens, bells were a source of community communication – sometimes driving people out of their homes, sometimes sending children home. In the early 1900s, there were bells all around Houston, Minnesota – according to city history writer Ingrid Julsrud in her 1993 book, “Remembering Old Times”.

A bell rested high on a pole at the southwest corner of Cedar and Grant streets, at the time near the Rowland hardware store. It was the fire bell, which not only called on citizens to fight fires, but also called attention to other emergencies. It rang when there were drownings in the Root River and around 1913 when Steve Sherman was killed in the sandpit.

This bell also followed a regular schedule. Tom O’Connor, the town policeman, called it every night as a 9 p.m. curfew for children, often interrupting some of honkoa version of hide and seekplayed by boys on the streets of Houston.

Photograph of the Norwegian from Saint-Pierre
This photograph of St. Peter’s Norwegian Lutheran Church in Houston appeared on a postcard mailed in 1917. The church bell first rang in 1889.
Photo courtesy of Houston County Historical Society

At the top of the red-brick schoolhouse, a bell called the children to class every school day at 8:30 a.m. Thirty minutes later, it rang again – this time as the late bell. Those who were out of place at the time were officially late. This school bell was in use from 1904 until 1939 when the building was razed to be replaced by what is now the primary school building.

Sunday was marked by the beautiful and welcoming sound of church bells, the largest musical instrument in the world. Obtaining a church bell was a major transaction. In 1874, the Houston County congregation of Wilmington Lutheran ordered a 707-pound bell at a cost of $450, which in 2022 equated to $11,000. With delivery from a foundry in West Troy, NY, this n was not a local purchase.

In the early 1990s, Julsrud lamented that only one of Houston’s five churches, Houston Baptist Church, still rings a bell every Sunday morning as it still does in 2022. The bell at St. -Pierre was first heard from in 1889. The building at the corner of Elm and Grant streets later became the Presbyterian Church and now (minus the bell) is owned by the public school district. The stone church had a large 1,500 pound bell with particularly pleasing tones.

In these early decades of the 20th century, most churches did not have worship every Sunday, as they shared a parish priest with one or two other parishes. The Stone Church, which shared a pastor with Rushford, rang its bell at 8 a.m. to remind parishioners that was the Sunday the preacher would be there. It also gave them time to arrive for a service later in the morning, at 10:30 a.m. or 11:00 a.m. Even when the parish later had a full-time parish priest, the tradition of the 8 o’clock bell continued.

Mr. Thorie Lofto, who lived closest to the church (just to the south), was the keeper of the key. Once, for several days, he was alarmed to hear the church bell ringing for no apparent reason – sometimes even at night. He concluded that the church had a resident ghost. He rejected the suggestion to take the key and enter the church to investigate the next time he heard the bell. Thorie was definitely afraid of ghosts, and even if he wasn’t, what do you do when you encounter a ringing ghost. Eventually Gunnar Jonson (pronounced Yonson) agreed to enter the church when the bell was heard. It only took a few seconds to solve the mystery. Right after unlocking the door, Jonson was nearly run over by a large white (but not ghostly white) dog that was eager to leave the premises. There was no ghost, just a four-legged intruder who obviously liked to jump up and pull the bell rope.

There were dinner bells to announce meal time. Timing was critical, especially on the farm. The bell ringer learned how long it took those who heard the bell to stop working, return from the fields, tend the horses, enter the house, wash themselves and arrive at the table at the same time as the hot meal. .

This depiction of life in Houston is from the book “Remembering the Good Old Times, Houston in the Age of Postcards” by Ingrid Julsrud.


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