BEST OF 2012: Nebraska bell collection evokes sounds of history

Jim Meis' collection of bells near Elgin, Neb. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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December 25, 2012 - 6:30am

If you've ever taken Highway 14 through Elgin, Neb., near Norfolk, chances are you've noticed the collection of bells off to the west side of the road. And if you stop sometime, you just might hear the sound of history.


ELGIN, NEB. - On a recent warm spring morning, people were driving past Jim Meis' house like there wasn't a yard full of "What's that?" in their view.

"Yeah, I get people come by and they don't stop, and the next day I get a letter to 'Bells on Highway 14,'" Meis said. "No address, just 'Bells on Highway 14.'"

Those who do stop get an earful not only of bells but the stories behind them. That includes how Meis tried to get started on his collection, when the country school he had attended ("Bell School," of course) was sold in 1955. Meis remembers he was picking corn, and asked his father to go get the Bell bell, but he came home without it.

Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News

Jim Meis prepares to ring the bell from the country school he attended.

"I asked him where the bell was," Meis recalled. "He says the auctioneer sold it to his buddy. I waited 30 years until his buddy died and bought the bell then. It's right out here."

Like a schoolboy, Meis clambered through a jungle gym of bells and the metal frames they're mounted on to let a visitor hear what it sounded like.

"I could crawl around and get to it. I used to have a rope on it but (it) fell off," he explained. Reaching the bell at last, he tugged on a wire attached to a handle that rocked it to produce an evocative clanging.

Meis answered that bell in the 1930s and '40s. But even then, its pull was fading. When he started school, there were 21 kids in eight grades, but by the time he finished, there was only one. Like a lot of farm boys in those days, Meis went to work and didn't finish high school.

On farms outside Elgin, bells were also used to summon people in from the fields to eat.

"The farm houses used to be in the middle of the quarter, and then you'd farm with horses," he recalled. "When it was dinnertime, Mom would ring the dinner bell and you could hear it. And the buildings was always in the middle, so you didn't have to go that far for dinner that way. Every farm had a dinner bell."

As he guided a visitor around his crowded yard, Meis pointed to another set of bells - and another bit of history.

"During World War II, every town had a curfew bell. That's what these are," he said. "They'd shut the lights off at 9 o'clock. If you wasn't home by 9 o'clock, they'd throw you in jail. And all the lights went off in town. It was plum dark. They thought the Japanese was going to bomb the cities all the time in World War II."

Meis has bells to signify happier times, too, like sleigh bells and bells to advertise ballrooms. He's sold some, but said he missed them and had to get replacements.

"I used to sell them. I thought I made money, (but) then when I'd buy them back they cost more than I got for them," he said with a chuckle.

His hobby may be expensive, but Meiss said the money he spends on it could go for something worth far less.

"This is my tobacco money - smokin' money," he said. "Someday the kids'll have something to sell. If I smoked, nobody'd have anything."

While most of Meis's bells have decades of history behind them, he's got some newer ones as well, like one a man in Omaha made for him.

"This is a brass one. It rings a lot better than a cast-iron one," he said.

"It'll ring a lot longer."

Meis struck the bell, and, like his stories, it reverberated until you could hardly distinguish where the sound stopped, and where contemplative silence began.


Editor's note: This Signature Story is part of our "Best of 2012" series of reports, airing Dec. 24 to Dec. 28, 2012 on NET Radio, looking back at some of the most memorable Signature Stories from NET News throughout the year. It originally aired May 21.

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