For whom the school bell tolls

When I was a child, I got to touch the Liberty Bell. My grandparents lived not far from Philadelphia, so we got to see all this stuff as I was growing up. The tour guides, back in those days, encouraged kids to walk up and stick their finger in the crack. Terrorism and vandalism hadn’t been invented yet. These days, I probably just got on four government watchlists for writing that.

So, when I was about 6, I got to touch the Liberty Bell. And coincidentally, just over 40 years later, a man on the street approached me to give me a tip about the Liberty Bell’s connection to Lock Haven.

He asked me why I hadn’t written about John Wilbanks, of Philadelphia. When I told him that I usually only write about Clinton County people, that was when he told me about Wilbanks’s Clinton County connection — and it’s a good one. And I did the research, with considerable help from Lock Haven University library director Joby Topper and then-county employee Maria Boileau. I also checked with the American Bell Association, which is apparently a thing.

To tell you about it, I’m going to have to go back — way back. Almost 200 years. 1840, to be exact.

The Liberty Bell was, once upon a time, not considered anything all that special. It was just an old bell — and a cracked one, at that. It was hung in the steeple of the Philadelphia State House until 1828, when it was decided to replace it with a new one.

John Wilbanks, local bell maker, was hired to make the new one, and paid $400. Part of this payment included his removing the Liberty Bell and disposing of it, but Wilbanks refused, claiming that the $400 didn’t cover that. The city sued him for breach of contract, but they kept the Liberty Bell. So, in a strange way, Wilbanks is the reason we still have a Liberty Bell. Though if he’d been paid more, we wouldn’t.

Here in the middle of Pennsylvania, Clinton County was founded in June of 1839. If you’re going to run a county, you need a courthouse. We’ve had four, or two, depending on your interpretation.

First, the county officials (all four of them) were meeting in the Barker’s Tavern on Water Street. Court proceedings were done there, making it really easy to convict DUIs. Meanwhile, local man John Moorhead built a building on Main Street and then offered it to the county commissioners for use as a courthouse. They turned him down, typically for Moorhead, and then hired him to design and build a new one, on the site of the present-day Robb Elementary School.

Moorhead built that one, which lasted about 20 years before they moved to the current courthouse, and installed a bell. He hired John Wilbanks to create that bell — I’m fairly sure he paid Wilbanks $400. And that bell was installed in the courthouse in 1840.

It’s been on that property ever since.

When the new courthouse was built in the late 1860s, the old one was turned into a school. Ever since then, there has been a series of schools on that property, finally ending with the current Robb Elementary School. Each one has featured that same bell, in some capacity or other. (Presumably, Nicholas Cage hasn’t come to steal it yet.)

Newspaper articles refer to the bell being saved and preserved from the old school, probably with the district not even realizing what they had. It stands out front of the school today, a monument, with the inscription “CAST BY J. WILBANKS, PHILA. 1840.”

For almost all of its history, Lock Haven has had a connection with the Liberty Bell. And I didn’t know it until now.

The bell stands in front of the school, right along Church Street. It’s been there for almost the whole history of the county — ever since 1840, right on the property. And, to add to all this, it has a history that connects it with one of our most iconic national symbols.

Man, I cannot get enough of this. I love this county.

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Lou Bernard is a Lock Haven resident with a keen interest in the history of this area. He is adult services coordinator at Ross Library and may be reached at ross13@rosslibrary.org or 570-748-3321.

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