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Historic Elon bells on permanent display

Two bells with historic ties to Elon University, including one that survived a fire that threatened the future of the school in its early years, were put on display Thursday at two different locations on campus.

Jay Leonardo (left) and Dennis Falkner of Design Display Inc. place the bell from Elon's former Main Administration building onto a specially designed podium in the rotunda of Alamance building.

Crews from Design Display Inc. of Alabama first installed a podium in the first-floor rotunda of Alamance building to hold a bell that once hung in the Main Administration building prior to the 1923 blaze that leveled the structure, which housed administrative offices, classrooms and a library.

Bronze plaques attached to the podium tell the story of the bell, as do a series of photos from the 1923 fire and subsequent rebuilding. The display also features bricks from Main building and a metal cornerstone box that had contents placed in it – handwritten documents, a Bible, local newspapers – when construction on the college first started in 1889.

“We tried to create this display not only for people here at Elon, but for visitors who want a general sense of our history,” said Katie Nash, the university’s archivist. “Just looking at the bell tells the story. The information plaques help, too, but we wanted the bell to be the focal point.”

Workers then put into place a smaller podium in the Archives and Special Collections suite in Belk Library to house the Graham College bell, another significant artifact from Elon’s past. That display will eventually incorporate wood from oak trees already fallen on campus.

The finished display, including bricks from the Main Administration building and a cornerstone metal box that previously served as a time capsule from July 1889.

Graham College, the forerunner of Elon College, was located on South Maple Street in Graham, N.C. Founded in 1851 by the Southern Christian Convention as Graham Institute and reorganized as Graham College in 1859, the school was closed during the Civil War.

William S. Long purchased the property in 1871 and joined with his brother Daniel A. Long to open Graham High School, which in 1881 became Graham Normal College. In 1887, the Southern Christian Convention leased the school to operate as Graham College, with William S. Long as president, until a permanent location for the denomination’s long-awaited college could be chosen.

When Elon College opened in August 1890, Graham College suspended operations. William S. Long became Elon’s first president.

This bell was cast in 1853 by the Meneely Bell Foundry in West Troy, N.Y., for the Richard Norris & Son Locomotive Works of Philadelphia. It arrived in North Carolina in 1854 atop one of the first North Carolina Railroad locomotives purchased from Norris.

Leonardo (right) and Falkner of Design Display Inc. also installed the Graham College bell in the Archives and Special Collections suite in Belk Library.

The bell is one of the few surviving antebellum artifacts of the North Carolina Railroad, chartered in 1849 and completed in 1856. Trains ran from Goldsboro to Charlotte, via Raleigh, Hillsborough, Graham, Greensboro and Salisbury. Locomotives were serviced, rebuilt and combined at the railroad’s Company Shops near the mid-point of the line in what is today Burlington, N.C.

Daniel A. Long obtained the bell from the railroad for use at the Graham school. The bell was later used at the Christian Church and at a Freewill Baptist Church in Franklinton, N.C. It was later recovered and given to Elon College in 1951 by the Rev. Emory M. Carter ‘25.

Unlike the Graham College bell, the Main Administration bell had been in storage for decades before it was tracked down in 2008 by Raymond Beck ’75, the former North Carolina state capitol historian who had been on campus researching the history of Elon’s band.

After experts confirmed it was, indeed, the bell that survived the fire, university faculty and staff went to work on plans for a public display. Nash, professor emeritus George Troxler, and Brad Moore, associate director of planning, design & construction management at the university, worked together to design both podiums with experts from Design Display.

Beck, Nash, and Troxler also collaborated and compiled all research data necessary to authenticate the Graham College/NC Railroad bell.

Eric Townsend,
8/2/2010 1:00 PM