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"The Bell that Broke the Midnight Silence in My Hometown" by Marriner C. Rigby
To some people the city limits of a small town become the boundary of the world. If we are to know someone well, then we need to know their environment. It is for this reason, the writer describes his hometown in this earlier era.
In the year 1947 the small town of Newton sat centered in Cache Valley in the state of Utah. The population was less than 600 people. There was a grade one through eight schoolhouse with a very small enrollment and an unfinished chapel that was to replace a church building destroyed by fire. "Downtown" on Main Street stood a grocery store where you ordered each desired item from the front counter. Across the street was the post office. Telephones were extended only to the length of their cord. An operator responded personally to your requested number.
Most of the residents were reassuring in strength to each other and a neighborly love emerged from shared values, good character and compassion. Most people used incorrect verbs as they spoke. Criticism prevailed like a whiff of urine. Gossip and inquirer-type news was available at certain times at the post office corner. It was a simple life style with an emphasis on survival. It was a small town with on ordinary atmosphere, profound and universal in American life. There existed little vices and virtues of a less than bottomed-out economy of an era gone by.
Three miles south of the town over the Bear River was Cache Junction. This was a railroad town with a Union Pacific Depot and the "Beanery Café". When the train reached Cache Junction, the hungry crew ate grease-soaked food including heavy lard-crust pies; these train men became candidates for cardiac arrest later in their lives. While the crew ate, the "big Malley" engine was stocked with coal at the coal shoot [sic chute] along with water from the sky-high water tower. It was now ready to produce steam for the long haul North.
It was at this site that temptation got the best of three young Newton men. Arnold Jenkins, Max Christiansen, and Marriner Rigby spotted a southbound freight car loaded with scrap metal. On top of the metal heap sat a huge church bell. The bell had been loaded so close to the edge of the stacked freight that a small push could easily topple the bell to the ground below. The boys had it planned to push the bell to the ground and to retrieve it later that night.
Later, as they attempted to lift the bell into the trunk of a 1936 Ford, the tremendous weight of the huge metal thing became increasing apparent. Once in, the trunk was completely filled and the springs of the car sat almost to the ground.
The boys’ goal, to wake the entire town of Newton by ringing the bell, seemed all too plausible now. However, hoisting the enormous bell to the top of an old abandoned barn on the outskirts of town presented more challenges. A large "block and tackle" tool and much effort was needed to lift the bell to the top of the barn for the midnight ringing. The stroke of midnight found three young guys pulling the rope will all of their strength. The night was clear with a temperature of ten below zero. The incredibly loud bell sounds broke the silence of the freezing, still night. It was the first bell heard all over town in all of Newton’s history. Some wouldn’t admit they heard it; others said it couldn’t be, because there were no bells in Newton. It was mentioned that maybe it was a sign of the "second coming!" After hearing the bell ringing for three nights in a row, folks became very alarmed. Then, the bell stopped. The town was silent again.
The boys had feared discovery at this point and had made a decision to cease the nightly ringing. The thrill of the secret was too difficult to contain and several nights later they were back at it. Now the boys moved the bell to another barn across town. The night ringing again broke the midnight silence. The plan was to hide the bell in a haystack and then take it to a neighboring town for a midnight ringing.
That next day the bell was discovered beneath the hay and reported to the Newton City Marshall. The bell was stored in the Marshall’s garage for a short time and then returned to salvage.
No one knew the identity of the three young men until much later in their lives when they broke their silence of the mysterious events . . . . . . much as the silence was broken at midnight.
-- Account written by Marriner C. Rigby on May 22, 2008 [by specific request].
NEWTON’S MIDNIGHT BELL
It’s been nye on to sixty years I know well,
Since Newton heard the midnight bell.
From north to south, west to east, in the square,
The sound reverberated through the winter air.
It rang out three nights and then tolled again,
Before its source was revealed with disdain.
And seized, silenced quickly without regret,
With the noise, fun and ringers forgot not yet.
Till good alas, I ere long to hear it ring once more,
As winter turns snowy and cold by the minus score.
To set the old home town again to wondering,
For whom this bell tolls its loud thundering.
Only to flash back, Arnold, Marriner and Max,
Recounting now their thinking and daring acts.
-- by One Who Saw the Bell
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[Additional information was obtained from Marriner Rigby by a telephone call to his home in St. George, Utah, on November 1, 2008, via a series of questions by Larry D. Christiansen. The details below were obtained following a series of written questions supplied to Marriner a few weeks earlier.]
The entire bell ringing took place in early 1948, most likely in February or March. Arnold, Marriner and Max were together at Cache Junction when they saw a railroad freight car loaded with scrap metal with a large bell on top of the load. He can’t precisely call to mind how and why they came to the conclusion that they could have fun with this large bell, but he is of the opinion that Max was the leader in thought and action in regard to the bell operation. He recalled that Max and his sister Merle were always pulling tricks on one another as well as on others, and in retrospect Marriner wondered if in someway the bell became part of this sibling exchange, at least in part. Anyhow, they decided to get the bell and climbed up on the car and pushed the bell off the freight car where it fell close to the tracks. The bell was big and heavy, being from 30 to 36 inches in diameter and was about all the three of them could lift. The bell was placed in Arnold’s Ford (initially cited as a 1941 model) and the back end of the car came near dragging the ground. Marriner had recently in 2008 talked with Arnold and changed the year of the car in his initial report to a 1936 Ford. They drove to Newton and took the bell directly to "Alice Christensen’s old barn." As a group they had not checked out this barn before hand. Max seemed to know the most about the barn, which Marriner thought, was because Max’s sister lived so close. At this point in the interview, Marriner repeated an idea expressed earlier as he speculated if his friend Max had selected the barn thinking of playing another trick on his sister Merle. Marriner conceded that Max could have checked the barn out between dropping the bell on the ground at Cache Junction and later picking it up after dark. They carried the bell into the barn realizing they had to go get a block and tackle to lift the bell into a ringing position. They obtained the block and tackle at Max’s family’s place. On the top of the bell there was some sort of attachment or accessory apparatus whereby they could both connect the block and tackle to lift the bell but also affix another rope to ring the bell, which had a large clapper inside the bell. Marriner thought they attached the upper end of the block and tackle to the metal track inside the hay barn that carried the Jackson fork inside the barn, and they reached this inside top peak in the barn without the use of a ladder by just climbing the structural framework of the barn. With the block and tackle attached to the bell and an elevated place in the barn, the three young fellows had to exert much energy to raise the heavy bell high in the barn with another rope fastened to the attachment fixture at the top of the bell to facilitate the ringing of the bell. While it took much effort and time to hang the bell, they completed their work before midnight. With the bell high in the barn they waited for the witching hour, and to ring the bell they pulled on the rope to swing or rock the entire bell to produce the ringing as the heavy clapper struck the side of the bell. During the telephone interview and while acknowledging the difficulties of bringing back details from events that took place sixty year ago, there were a series of questions in which Marriner did not recall anything specific concerning questions on specific instances such as how the idea of using the bell developed in their minds, precautions taken to prevent detection and the ringers’ activities immediately following the bell being rung.
Instead, Marriner thought they had little forethought or fear of discovery of being found at the bell ringing site. They didn’t worry about parking the car where it was hidden or obscured from view from the nearby road, or limiting the number of times the bell was rung, thinking that with the old empty barn being on the outskirts of town with the lateness and cold weather. Marriner stated (in his own words) he couldn’t "recall how long the bell was rung, and they had little to no fear of being caught. In cold weather at that time cars were difficult to start, and they didn’t think anyone would start their cars and go looking for the source of the bell sounds." They just rang the bell a number of times, then using the block and tackle, lowered the bell to ground surface with no attempt to otherwise hide the bell, and after a short time got into their car and went home. There was no recollection of any noticed reactions taking place within their limited view to the ringing of the bell. On each of the three nights they rang the bell at this barn they lowered the bell each time. It was extremely cold each night they rang the bell, but Marriner was not sure it there was any snowfall.
According to Marriner’s recollection, while the actual ringing appeared to have been taken with much calmness by the ringers, the next day there was excitement and much questioning among the citizens of Newton. The ringing of the bell at midnight became the talk of the town, and he particularly remembered it as "intense especially at the M-Men basketball games" during and after the ringing period as the people discussed it with some hearing it and others denying hearing it. He recalled a reported conversation in which Fon Christensen accused his neighbor to the west of ringing the bell with some of the language expressive. After ringing the bell for three consecutive nights, the fellows decided to stop the ringing and move the bell to another location. In Marriner’ mind, his friend Max seems to have taken the lead even to choosing the next place to set the bell up again. However, by this time, as remembered sixty years later, Marriner seemed to think that all three of the ringers were beginning to tire of all the extra time and effort their bell had caused them, so a rest was appreciated. Still, there was talking about hiding the bell in a hay stack and then later taking their bell to another community for more fun.
They loaded their bell into a car at night and transported it to the southeastern part of Newton and set it up in a much smaller barn. This barn was located behind an empty house, but he thought Clyde Christensen used some of the nearby sheds for storage, but Marriner was not sure if it belonged to Clyde. He did state that this barn was just across the street from Alton Christensen’s barn and milking operation. He believes that some snow had fallen just prior to putting the bell in this barn. Then surprisingly Marriner began to wonder vocally if they actually rang the bell at this location or if it was discovered by Clyde Christensen seeing tracks in the snow leading to the barn. During the interview this uncertainty was never resolved.
After the bell was discovered and town marshal [actually he was the former town marshal], Henry Sutherland, took the bell to his garage and secure it with a lock. To the direct question—"Who was involved in the unsuccessful attempt to get the bell from Henry Sutherland’s garage? Can you relate the details of this try?"—he replied: "Horace Christiansen helped. Max and Horace went to work on the lock while Arnold and I backed the car up close. Then Max told us to park elsewhere, and while doing so, Henry Sutherland was aroused and we all scampered into an empty nearby lot and hid." After it was safe they left the area giving up on trying getting their bell back.
Marriner’s folks never knew of his involvement with ringing the bell, and prior to his leaving for a mission in the fall of 1948 he never divulged anything connected to the bell to family or close friends. It was much later before he began to tell of his connection to the bell, and by this time it was largely forgotten in Newton. He knows of no concerted physical search for the bell by the town marshal or others during the ringing, nor was there a real effort to find those responsible for the midnight ringing.
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ARNOLD JENKINS’ BELL STORY AND INTERVIEWS
[Letter of December 21, 2008 from Arnold Jenkins written from Yuma, AZ to Larry D. Christiansen in response to a request with eleven questions in regard to the midnight bell ringing in Newton.]
In response to your letter of 6-10-08 I put it aside due to having cataracts taken off my eyes and I just forgot it till now. I did see Marriner and he gave me a copy of what he sent to you. There are some things to change.
[NOTE: Hereafter the questions to Arnold will be repeated in italics with his response cited to the numbered item or question.]
1). From first seeing the large bell in a RR scrap car what thoughts were entertained to cause the three of you to decide you could use it?
Item #1 –First as you know that Max, Marriner and myself were working on the B & B Gang together. Our outfit was parked in Brigham City and we drove back and forth from Brigham to Newton or Newton to B. C. It was in Brigham City that we saw the bell and we thought it would be nice to have and maybe we could use it for the town celebrating on the 24th of July and to ring in the New Year. So we talked to the fellows loading the scrap car and asked if we could have a piece of scrap. They responded by saying go ahead. So we climbed on to the car and rolled the bell off—boy were they surprised. It was my car a 1936 Ford Tudor. We had to remove the right passenger seat to get it through the door to the back seat and it just did fit.
2). Can you give an estimated size (diameter and height) and weight of the bell, and how the three of you handled it as well as the car that carried it to Newton?
Item #2 –It was all that the three of us could muster, due to its odd size and shape. I would say its size was 2 ½ to 3 feet in diameter and 3 to 4 ft. high.
3). Once in Newton, where did you place it or hide it until you chose Alice Christensen’s old barn in NW part of town? Or did you take it directly to that barn?
Item #3 –We kept it in my garage when not using it. Then took it to the place to ring.
4). Some details of the effort required to position the bell at a certain height and how long it took to do so—such as a couple of hours, or longer, even not finished until the next day.
Item #4 –In order to hang it Max had a set of ¾" chain falls, and his dad wanted to know what we needed the chain falls for and Max told him that I had a broken spring on my car to replace. [A chain falls was a hand-powered chain hoist that worked on the pulley principle providing a mechanical advantage to move or life objects.]
We placed it and hung it with the chain falls just high enough to ring it. In all it took about 30 minutes to place it. We would start at 11 p.m. and ring it at midnight for 5 to 10 minutes then quit and waited for the town to quite down.
The second night your brother-in-law Owen [Larsen], who lived in the Garner home by Alice’s almost caught us so we moved to another location. After that we weren’t detected.
5). Now the ringing process—choose midnight ringing—how many times did you ring the bell or how long each time? Did the bell come with its clapper, or did you strike it with something to make it ring? After ringing the bell did your remain at the barn to see what would happen or quickly move to another location and watch from there? What did you observe on that first night of ringing? Did you leave the bell in the ringing position or lower it to make it harder to find?
Items #5 – Yes we rang it at 12 o’clock midnight for 5 – 10 minutes. It had a double ball clapper 2 to 3 inches in diameter. After ringing we would leave and return later to retrieve the bell for the night. The next night we would do it again in another spot.
6). On the second and third nights ringing at the first location were there any differences in the length of the ringing and/or what you three did to watch the reaction at the nearby homes?
Item #6 – There was no difference as to the time we rang it. There was a lot of excitement in town, a lot of speculation as to what was happening some said it was The second coming.
7). When you moved the bell to the second location (which I believe was behind the old Johnson place in southern Newton), why did you pick that place? Was the structure more correctly an old barn, an old shed or a combination shed and stable, or what?
Item #7 – It was Laura J. Johnson's old barn. It was a hay barn with a stable lean-to on it. This is where the bell was found. We would leave and come back later to get the bell, but on this night there came a snow squall. And the wind was blowing hard so we decided to leave it there so we rolled it over to the corner of the barn and covered it with straw. We never thought anyone would see it as it was covered with lots of straw. But the wind blew so hard it swirled around and uncovered part of it to be seen.
[NOTE: Hereafter three of the next four questions were not directly answered per item number but a summary reflected somewhat on their content.]
10). Who were involved in the unsuccessful attempt to get the bell from Sutherland’s garage? Can you relate any details of this try?
Myself, Max, Marriner and Horace Christiansen.
[Arnold’s concluding summary:]
O.K. now as you know there was so much talk in town as to the mystery of it that it made the news even the A. [Associated] Press ran a commentary on it.
Anyway Clyde Christensen had rented the coops next to the barn to brood chickens. When he came to tend his chicks he noticed the car tracks and investigated and to his excitement found the bell. He, having had a bit of trouble with the law didn’t want this bell controversy going around connected to him, called County Sheriff Wes Malmberg and Perry Nebeker and Henry Sutherland. The bell was placed in Henry Sutherland’s garage.
We decided to retrieve it on a Tuesday night after Mutual, but he had a lock on the door. That is when Horace Christiansen came into the mix as he had some big bolt cutters. So we cut the lock on the door. This was the only illegal part of the thing that we did.
We opened the door very quietly so as to not wake up Henry Sutherland, as he was sleeping next to the bell in a camp cot. We picked up the bell very quietly with three of us lifting the bell and one holding the clapper to keep all silent. We made it out of the garage and shut the door. We were south of Henry’s place about half a block. I think it was Horace who stepped on a rock and turned his ankle and let go of the clapper and it rang the bell. As you would guess it rang the bell and woke up Henry and he came out of the garage hollering "Halt, Halt." We dropped the bell and ran to my car and got out of there.
There was a lot of speculation as to who was involved and where the bell came from. A man from Benson Ward said it had been stolen from him, but it was not. After some time it came down to who it could be.
Finally Perry Nebeker and I were talking and he told me that he was pretty sure that I was involved or knew who was in on it. We talked and he said it was a good prank as it really put a spark in the old town! I told him how we had gotten it, and I got a bill of sale for it at the salvage yard in Brigham City. We would give the bell to the town as we had thought about earlier. I gave the bill of sale to Mr. Nebeker and he stated he would get the bell back from the man in Benson. But when he tried the Benson man had already sold the bell. It is quite a tale! We had fun . . . . I hope you can make a good history of it. I know the people of the town were shook up. Your dad and my dad had it almost figured out. I would appreciate if you send me a copy of what you write, I’m sending you a copy of Marriner’s letter with the corrections as I recall them.
[Note: The two corrections on Marriner’s written account were crossing out the finding of the bell at Cache Junction and changing the car from a 1941 Ford to a 1936 Ford.]
Thanks for writing. This is a memory that I will carry to the end.
[signed] Arnold Jenkins.
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[Prior to receiving the letter above, Arnold telephoned Larry on December 21, 2008, and explained the delay in responding to the initial letter and stated that he had mailed his written account of the bell story. He told of his recent contacts with Marriner Rigby and his corrections to some of the latter’s story. Then a short oral interview was conducted over the telephone with the following results:]
In his interview -- Marriner, Max and Arnold were employed on a railroad gang under Chris Sorensen and were working in Brigham City, and while so engaged they witnessed the loading of scrap metal into a railcar for several days. They approached the men responsible for this scrap loading and asked if they could have a piece of the loaded scrap and were granted their request. They chose a large bell and Max and Arnold climbed up and tipped it off the railcar. They had Arnold’s two-door 1936 Ford to transport their new prized possession. They had to remove the front passenger seat and then with care and difficulty they loaded the heavy bell through the passenger door into the car. He guessed the bell had to weigh at least 300 pounds as it was about all the three fellows could do to lift and maneuver it into the car. They took the bell to Newton and stored it in Arnold’s parents’ garage for a short period of time. Arnold interjected a thought or suggestion that they may have been motivated in seeking the bell to use it in town for the 24th of July and New Year’s Eve, but before or after decided they could have some more immediate fun with it. Then they took the bell to Alice Christensen (Barker’s) old barn in the northwest corner of the town. In the meantime they realized they needed assistance to raise the bell into an elevated position for ringing. From Max’s folk they obtain a chain falls or lifting device similar to a block and tackle but much shorter and stouter and attacked one end to the on the top of the bell and attached the other end to a strong support beam in the barn. They raised the bell a short distance off the ground whereby they could reach the bell to move the clapper by hand.
[In response to a direct question as to how they attached a rope to ring the bell he responded as follows:]
They did not use a rope to ring the bell, but instead raised the bell off the ground to about shoulder or head height whereby they could manually moved the clapper to ring the bell. As a result the ringing was painful for the three ringers. Arnold interjected that possibly the reason he was having problems with his hearing today was the closeness and loud ringing he experienced while ringing the bell. They had the bell for only a week. He recalled they first rang the bell in the old barn. They again rang the bell a second time the following night. The "only person" aroused to go looking for the bell was Max’s brother-in-law, Owen Larsen, who came looking on the second night. The three bell ringers found some old rotten eggs and threw them at Owen to prevent his coming to close and catching them with the bell. After ringing the bell two nights in the barn, they took the bell uptown to a large tree in the overgrown lots of Hyrum Larsen (east of their large stone home) and mounted the bell in this tree and rang it again. Then they moved the bell down to the southern part of Newton and placed it in a small barn. Clyde Christensen was raising chickens in some old coops on the property and while caring for these chickens the morning after the last ringing he noticed tracks in the snow leading to the old barn and found the bell in this second barn and reported it. The discovery was reported to Wesley Malmberg, the county sheriff, and the local law enforcement in Newton. The bell was taken to Henry Sutherland’s garage for safe keeping. Arnold stated that Henry slept beside the bell ("with his bottle") and put a lock in the garage door. Arnold, Marriner, Max and Horace Christiansen made an attempt to get the bell and cut the lock from Sutherland garage but were unable to get the bell because Sutherland was alerted.
Then Arnold related some conversations that he had with Perry Nebeker, who was the town marshal and hauled milk that placed him at the Jenkins place at least twice each day in regard to carrying the milk. During one of their talks the subject of the bell ringing came up, and Perry suggested that Arnold probably knew much about it. Arnold made a denial, but a short time later the bell ringing was again brought up with the town marshal stating he was pretty sure Arnold and Max Christiansen were somehow involved. He did not mention Marriner’s name. Perry told Arnold that a Mr. Reese from Benson ward was claiming the bell had been stolen from him and before long he would be given the bell. Then Arnold told Perry how the bell ringers had obtained the bell and he would go and get a bill of sale for the bell. In this effort by Arnold to establish a legal claim for the bell was the idea that the bell ringers now wanted to give the bell to the town. Marshal Nebeker assured Arnold that they would not be in trouble over the ringing of the bell. Arnold obtained a bill of sale from the salvage place in Brigham City, providing a legal claim to the bell and gave it to the Newton town marshal. Mr. Nebeker stated that Mr. Reese had already picked up the bell, but he would go and get it back. However, when he did so he found Mr. Reese had sold the bell.
Arnold asserted that the only illegal thing they did during the whole episode was cut the lock on Sutherland’s garage for the bell was obtained with permission and they later acquired a bill of sale. The three bell ringers had a great deal of fun and provided Newton with something to talk about. He claimed the Associated Press (the world’s oldest and largest news gathering organization) picked up on the story of the bell ringing and spread it as far as New York City.
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[A second follow up telephone interview was made with Arnold on Dec. 27, 2008, in which another series of inquiries were direct to him to clear up points which arose in the various written accounts of the story.]
When Arnold was asked when the bell ringing took place he quickly responded "in March of 1947." After a discussion on when Alice Christensen married William J. Barker and left her old residence vacant (married Aug. 19, 1947) he changed his mind that it must have been in 1948. He also answered the question as to why he was not still in high school but working for the railroad. He left high school in 1946 due to sickness in his family. He stated that all the transporting of the bell took place in his 1936 Ford as it would not fit in Max’s car. His 1936 Ford Tudor touring car had a small trunk in the back but it was way too small to place almost anything, and the front passenger seat had to be removed to fit the bell inside his car. Although the bell was placed in the Jenkins’ garage, Arnold’s parents and siblings did not know he had the bell or was involved in ringing it.
All three of the young men were familiar with barns so they were able to go into the first barn with only flashlights and quickly set up and hoist the bell into an elevated position without any complications. They raised the bell up to shoulder or head height whereby the clapper could be manually forced against the bell’s side to ring. On the first night after positioning the bell, it was rung loudly at midnight and soon there was a chorus of dogs barking—"it seemed as though every dog in town was barking." They could also see and hear some human reactions to the ringing such as lights coming on, trying to silence their dogs, etc. After the first ringing of the bell they remained at the barn for a period of time and when all became quiet again they took down the bell and loaded it in Arnold’s car to be placed in his garage until the next time for ringing. They followed this procedure at all subsequent ringing except the last time when a snowfall and fierce winds caused them to leave the bell at the last barn over night. On the second night Owen Larsen almost caught them with the bell, and they were only able to prevent this by finding some rotten eggs and throwing them as him. So thereafter they rang the bell they left for a time and then came back and retrieved the bell and took it back to Arnold’s garage. For the most part after the first experience at ringing the bell they had little concern of being caught in the act. However, they took some precautions, especially as the bell became the talk of the town, and the three ringers would leave their home separately and meet at a rendezvous point where they combined into one vehicle to go do the set up and ringing and take down and return the bell to the garage. This tactic threw off any suspicions as to the three fellows being in involved together in the ringing of the bell.
In Arnold’s memory he was not sure they rang the bell three times at the first barn, and he remains the only source for another ringing. He had the fellows taking the bell to the Hyrum Larsen lots east of the family’s large rock home where several sheds, many trees and much overgrowth created a sort of jungle in the middle of town. They unloaded the bell and hoist equipment hiding it in among the dense vegetation and parked Arnold’s car elsewhere. They walked back to the Larsen property and carried the bell to a large cottonwood tree, and they rigged the hoist and positioned the bell suspended from the tree. They rang the bell and then lowered it to the ground and left the area. Later they returned and picked up the bell and stored it again in the garage. On another occasion, Arnold rang the bell by himself as his companions were not in town. When asked directly how he could have set the bell up all by himself, he replied that the bell was previously placed in a ringing position and he could ring it himself. He asserted the bell sound could be heard in nearby communities, and on his solo performance Max was in Smithfield dating and Marriner was in Wellsville and both heard the bell ring.
To the direct question "Did you know Henry Sutherland was inside his garage when you cut off the lock in your attempt to get the bell back?" Arnold’s response was along the following lines. After the bell was discovered and secured in Sutherland’s garage for a few days, the young men decided to attempt to regain their prized bell. On a Monday night (the night before the actual attempt) they reconnoitered the area and somehow gained the impression that the former town marshal was staying in his garage overnight because of the bell. Thus on the night the lock was cut they knew there was a strongly possibility of Henry being inside the garage. The padlock was on the large garage door and they cut the lock and opened the large door and found Henry on his camp cot asleep and perhaps fortify for the cold stay in the garage. They were able to pickup the bell and exit the garage and started to south half a block when one of the men stepped on a rock and lost his hold on the clapper caused the bell to ring. The sound awoke Henry to come charging out of the garage shouting, "Halt, Halt" and it quickly passed through his mind that Henry could have his gun and could shoot at them.
To another direct question—"How or why did the conversations with Perry Nebeker take place when he said that Arnold and Max were probably involved with the bell ringing?" Arnold explains that Perry was also the milk hauler and they frequently talked and had developed a good friendly relationship. In one of their conversations the bell ringing came up and Perry asked in a semi-joking manner that probably Arnold and his friends knew who was ringing the bell. Of course Arnold initially denied any knowledge or involvement. Later Perry brought up the subject again implying he had reasons to believe that Arnold and Max were in it in some capacity. This was after the bell had been found and secured in Sutherland’s garage. This time Arnold revealed how the fellows had obtained the bell and that the man from Benson was wrong in saying the bell had been stolen from him. Arnold then obtain a bill of sale from the Brigham City salvage place and gave it to Perry who stated he would get the bell from the Benson man. However, by this time the man had already sold the bell for scrap.
When Arnold was asked "When and how he learned of the Associated Press report on the midnight bell in Newton," he responded that he thought there was an article in The Herald Journal that referenced this information.
He repeated his contention that his father LaVon and Max’s father Alvin had about come to the conclusion that their sons were somewhat involved with the bell by adding some more information. Max had obtained his father’s hoisting device by saying Arnold’s car had a broken spring that had to be replaced. Some time later Alvin saw LaVon (Vonnie) Jenkins and asked if Arnold was able to fix his car. Vonnie responded that he didn’t know of Arnold’s car needing work but thought it was Max’s car that needed to be fixed. The chain falls hoist remained away from the owner and the stories left more questions than answers allowing the fathers to have suspicions that their sons were using the hoist on something other than their cars. Arnold reiterated that none of the three bell ringers’ parents were told by their sons of their bell activities.
Arnold repeated an earlier assertion that the bell ringing episode had been good for Newton and it was possible the best such "thing" the town ever experienced, and Marriner and he were "the only ones left." Presumably the thing was along the line of Mr. Nebeker’s feelings on the prank, while the only ones left could have meant only two of the ringers were still alive and/or being able to give the low-down or inside information on the story. As the closing remarks of this last interview, Arnold commented that in the excitement of the bell ringing that one elderly lady had fainted and another wet her pants when the bell ringing startled them.
[NOTE BY INTERVIEWER: Although both ladies were named the tale could easily be among the sprucing up additions to the story that occurred after the ringing became the talk of the town, catching the fancy of many with some attempting to make a good story even better as the tale was told and retold. It will be noted there were some repetitions in the two interviews which the interviewer thought should be included.]
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A SYNOPSIS OF MAX CHRISTIANSEN’S ROLE by Larry D. Christiansen
Max Christiansen died in 1994, just over four and a half decades after the night ringing of the bell in Newton. It is beyond the scope of this brief sketch to describe the many and varied capacities he served in his community but among them were being the bishop (1975-80) and mayor (1982-85). He and his wife, Donna, served four missions for their church, and during the last one Max died in New Mexico. In the winter of 1947-48 he was twenty years old and the best player on the Newton M-Men basketball team, thus, any bell activities had to be scheduled around games and practices. He was employed by the railroad as a carpenter stationed primarily at Cache Junction. He was still living at home with his parents and two siblings and serious about a Smithfield girl (Donna Daines) in her senior year at North Cache. He even cut one of their dates short so he could return to Newton before the witching hour to either ring the bell or to check on its status. They were married in September of 1948.
Max was the only one of the bell ringers who remained in Newton his entire life. Therefore, he had more opportunities to tell about it, if he had been so inclined. He also bore the brunt of any ever-inquiring minds, which persisted in getting into the details of the midnight bell. He, like his two associates, was quite circumspect about revealing anything about this escapade for several years after it happened. He had at least two sisters and a brother who knew nothing of their brother’s involvement until sometime in the early 1950s, and none of the three can pinpoint how they eventually came to know he was a bell ringer. His oldest sister, Merle, lived the closest to where the bell first rang and heard every ring all too loud and clear. His younger sister, MarDene, a senior in high school, can recall hearing the bell ring at night and of her parents talking about it. His younger brother, Larry, was eleven years old at the time of the ringing and can’t recall actually hearing the bell ring but can still remember the sensation it caused in town, at school, post office and the store. The day the bell was discovered, the news of it went through the Newton school even to where the bell had been found. At the close of school at 3:30 p.m. he with some other schoolmates immediately walked the three blocks to where the bell had been found and saw it before it was removed.
Within three years of the bell ringing this younger brother became convinced his brother Max was in on the bell ringing. Then began a process involving much coaxing that produced first hand information on the bell ringing. Max always told his snippets or longer stories in the third person, acting strictly as the narrator and never as a participant. Most often it came in the limited form whereby describing events that could only be known by one who was there; occasionally, the third person omniscient was expressed that covered a wider viewpoint with an evaluation of the fascinating, humorous tale. All of this fashioned the story as the narrator desired, and this proved to be an obstacle in digging into minute details. He was a good source on what happened, both at the ringing site and the town’s reaction, but he wouldn’t reveal much on the why and how. It came slowly in bits and pieces followed invariably by an angelic expression with a denial that he had anything to do with it. This procedure, with numerous starts, stops and denials, played out over three or four years, and the sum of the various episodes eventually produced the skeletal story from finding the bell to the failed try to retrieve it. In so revealing the story, it appeared that after seeing the bell and deciding on a use for it, the three young men put a great deal of thought including concern over being discovered in disturbing the peace in their subsequent actions. Their apprehensions extended through each of the four times they rang the bell at midnight and even into the period when they stopped ringing the bell for a few days when a check was made to see that all was okay at the barn. Their cautionary procedures extended into their behavior when among a few friends or a group discussing the bell ringing to giving no hint that they were involved in any way.
Inquiries concerning more details as Max gave his account were frustrated by the narrator simply saying he didn’t know because he wasn’t there. Max never revealed the names of the other men. Strictly by guess work and some deductions, the younger brother came to believe he knew the others involved. He was correct on two of the names, but mistakenly believed a fourth party was involved because this individual was present when some of the information was discussed. This information had been garnered before the fall of 1956 when the younger brother went on a mission. Ten years after his mission the younger brother was engaged in writing a centennial history of Newton and suggested to his older brother that since two decades had passed, it was time to come clean and reveal the whole story, including the names. The suggestion was ignored, thus the history contained only a brief account of the midnight bell under a heading "The Second coming?" which was gleaned from Max. The published story concluded with this statement: "Thus, Newton’s thundering bell was silenced and the town returned to peace and quiet, none the worse for wear." This 1969 account based on Max’s inside story kept the fading tale alive and helped to perpetuate it for other generations. Possibly some of this published information influenced the recollections of the two other participants. The information obtained from Max dealt primarily with the town's response to the midnight ringing of the bell given in a general way with no hint to the source which was Max plus a few other persons affected or involved in the incidents. For example, the information concerning the man living closest to the ringing bell in the first barn was by direct interview with this individual and his wife. The account of the two neighbors reflecting on the previous night's ringing came from Max with Horace Christiansen present and adding some to the discussion and gave the names of the two men. The names were not cited in the published story, however, since that time two written accounts and an oral story seen or heard by this writer provide both name with only one of those names agreeing with Max’s version.
With limited details, Max revealed that some Newton men found a large bell on a railroad scrap car someplace in the "other valley" (meaning outside of Cache Valley) and obtained it in a manner never explained. They brought the bell to Newton by automobile and hung it for ringing in a vacant barn on the northwestern outskirts of town and rang it at midnight three nights in a row. Then they stopped the ringing for a short time and later moved the bell to a second barn in southern Newton and rang the bell for a fourth time. The town's residents could not locate the ringing site from the sound, but this last time "tracks in the snow" led to the discovery of the bell. The bell was placed in Henry Sutherland's garage and locked up. The bell ringers tried to reclaim their bell on a Tuesday evening, going to the locked garage and with bolt cutters cut the hardened lock. The cutting of the lock caused a loud noise that sounded like a "pistol shot," which caused a stir in the Sutherland house and the men fled from the scene. Later a man from Benson claimed the bell as having been stolen from him and he took the bell. The three items in quotations above were Max's words and the full version came be read in the centennial history of Newton--"A New Town in the Valley."
Half a dozen years after Max’s passing, probably in either 2000 or 2001, the younger brother was back in Newton and visited Horace Christiansen; the man he mistakenly believed was involved. Once again he brought up the idea of telling the whole story of the bell, including names before that information was lost forever. Horace had earlier suffered a severe stroke which made it difficult to communicate with him, but this day in a very emphatic way he made it clear he wasn’t a participant in the ringing, and he would not clear the way to reveal the three involved. Some limited attempts were made trying to make contact with the other bell ringers with no success. Then in 2008, unexpectedly from an unlikely source, came word of one of the bell ringers in a manner not connected at all with the bell or Newton. From North Carolina through the state of Washington to St. George, Utah, contact was made, and this participant readily agreed to write his first-hand account (see Marriner C. Rigby’s story above), thus, rendering additional information on the bell ringing. Newton’s past reveals an assortment of pranks, stunts, practical jokes, mischief, tomfoolery, shenanigans or atypical behavior or misbehavior. They range from the time-tolerated tricks at Halloween down to cases of stealing. In this wide classification were the early offensive note on the public pasture gate, "Welshman’s Folly," disruption of the Scandinavian meetings, the "honest man from Newton" incident with the town’s cow herd, the 1882 bishop’s court on swearing, the silk culture setback of 1897, the noted chicken coop thieveries, deliberate scaring horses to cause runaways, disturbing cows being milked so as to kick the bucket over, tricks by threshing crews (axle-grease sandwiches, etc.) and at wedding receptions (chickens with legs tied together thrown over the transom as a diversion to steal the ice cream and/or cake, etc.). Furthermore, there were several wordy debates and counter-attacks in the newspaper on a variety of topics and personalities along with Newton’s moon-shiners, specialty horse races, suspicious fires, a gypsy curse, tales of Black Jack Nelson, the 1948 ringing of the bell at midnight and others too numerous to mention. Many were in bad taste, some not funny and others reprehensible, while some had more class; however, they all can be judged on their effect and performance beyond being either good or bad. The author, with his knowledge of the town’s history and troubles, asserts the midnight bell ringing was the best in this pranks, stunts, tomfoolery category, ranking about nine and a half out of a possible ten, and in this case was on the positive side wherein with the passage of time, it proved beneficial to the community. Certainly it was one of quality and by now time-tested.
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PRIMARY SOURCES FOR THE BELL STORY – An assessment:
1). Max Christiansen – the information was gathered from him between three and eight years after the bell ringing plus a couple of final interviews in 1968 prior to the publishing of Newton’s centennial history. In the numerous discussions no inconsistencies or contradictions with previous conversations were noted, and all was given in the third person with no distinction for the narrator. On the plus side for this source was its taking place not long after the events. On the negative was his reluctance to go into the details of the operation, including the names of his associates.
2). Marriner Rigby – wrote his account by direct request to tell of his involvement with the bell ringing. He wrote his story in May of 2008 sixty years after the bell ringing. After his written account was received an e-mail was sent to Marriner with several questions which he apparently did not receive before leaving to spend the summer in Alaska. After some delay there was a telephone interview with him which covered these questions and other items.
3). Arnold Jenkins – wrote his account some six months after receiving a written request with a series of questions related to the bell ringing prompted by what was not found in Max’s information and impelled by what Marriner had written and spoken. His written information came in December of 2008 together with two telephone interviews the same month. Arnold’s information was the most expansive, perhaps influenced by the request with several questions, his contact with Marriner after receiving the request and reading the latter’s story and having had much more time to think and recall what took place.
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They were the bell ringers in the best position to tell their side of the story. We are indeed fortunate at this late date to have considerable information from all three participants in the bell ringing, and extend thanks and appreciation for the efforts they have made to tell their stories. However, even their information must be evaluated against what each stated and in the light of other evidence. There were others who had personal experiences in the late night drama that played out and while they only give short partial elements. Nevertheless, they were essential in unfolding the facts and details of the midnight bell. A few observations on sources may be in order, a noted LDS historian wrote: "Historical sources, like people who make them, are rarely either completely perfect or totally unreliable." Therefore, the historian or writer of a history has many tasks to do even after finding the sources to be used. There must be a determination of any bias (pro or con), the extent to which the source tells a complete, partial or distorted story and compare that information with other accounts on the same subject. It isn’t easy or smooth to do so but necessary to tell the story as a historical account and not just an interesting and funny story.
One of the most striking insights into the midnight bell accounts is the differences in what individuals remembered. Some of the variation or divergence can be overlooked due to the many years between the event and relating it on paper. Certainly sixty years is a long time to remember details and memories fade. In addition individuals have different outlooks, while one person in the same group may be totally involved in all aspects from planning to doing, his co-partner might be involved physically but with much less degree of interest, hence their later views of the events could be dissimilar in some degree. Along this same line, one could view the event as just a prank and nothing else, while another could place importance beyond being a practical joke or trick and at every opportunity relate it again and again, trying impart its significance.
A careful reading of the three participant accounts will reveal the following: Some of the dissimilarity or divergences are minor such as whether the bell was obtained in Cache Junction or at Brigham City; the bell being transported in a car’s trunk or inside the car; whether the bell was taken directly to the first barn or placed in a garage for a short time; or whether the bell was hoisted very high in the barn with a block and tackle or raised only five or six feet off the ground via a chain falls hoist including the different manner in which the bell was rung; or even the number of times the bell was rung. At a slightly higher level of significance was the procedure used at each ringing session, whether the bell after being rung was lowered to the ground and left in the barn or taken down and returned to the garage after all the ringing sessions but the last one. In addition there are a few items only mentioned by one of the participants such as the two additional times the bells was rung—once suspended in a tree and another with only one ringer and teller of the incident present. The same holds in the relation of several discussions with the town marshal and activities designed to regain control of the bell by securing a bill of sale from the salvage place and giving it to the town marshal.
However, the crucial disagreement with would be the attempted recovery of the bell from the Sutherland garage. Two of the participants tell it one way while the third is much different. At this time this summation will stand without further comment, and the readers are left to make their judgments.
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Newton’s Midnight Bell: From First Tolling to Folklore and Beyond by Larry D. Christiansen
Some communities have had a long association with bells with both positive and negative aspects connected to the ringing with a few involving a numbers of legends, tales and stories. While Newton, the small farming settlement in Cache Valley, had only two rather short episodes with bells, it too has a bit of folklore about the last bell. The first bell atop the two storied school house served from 1907 to July 4, 1923 and the last came nearly a quarter of a century later during the winter of 1948 and lasted just over a week. The town in the early months of 1948 had a population of around 500 (1950 census was 497) whose economic base was still centered on agriculture. The populace lived in the town and farmed the outlying areas. World War II and subsequent changes in the economy were forcing increasing numbers of its residents into non-farming employment outside the town. Almost all of the homes had on their city lots agricultural oriented structures such as barns, stables, granaries, coops and other sheds essential in earlier times and most still used. A majority of the residents possessed some livestock such as cows, chickens, pigs and sheep with some still having horses. The town had a school, church, post office, two stores and two service stations. The mail came and went by way of the railroad at Cache Junction and was carried six days each week to the local post office. Each of these establishments served a utilitarian function along with their primary business for herein were exchanged the latest world and national happenings, local news, gossip and rumors along with predictions and analysis from the local soothsayers. There were activities such as church meetings with a regular schedule for Sunday and weekday meetings including the ward’s budget picture show every Thursday night. In the winter there were basketball games or practices at least twice a week and socials on a regular basis. Most families had a regimen, somewhat altered by the winter season, having a regularity for most of the family members. For the vast majority of persons, young and old, the daily routine at home plus involvement at school, church, personal interests and work was quite enough to fill their day to the point that they were ready by the coming of night for sleep and rest to face the following day’s schedule. Words descriptive of Newton in early 1948 were small, restrained, placid, calm, tranquil, quiet, peaceful, reposed and serene, and during the cold winter months doubly so, especially during the night time after the chores were finished when after ten p.m. sleepy and unperturbed could be applied. Occasionally a well-known sound caused by an animal or mankind could be heard but such didn’t break the prevailing tranquility. Or so it was until a cold winter night in 1948 when a second experience with a bell took place under mystifying circumstances in the town. Within ten minutes the descriptive words cited above were no longer operative in Newton. These occurrences with the bell were not a welcomed happening but proved very unsettling and counter to the normal routine in Newton and became the talk of the town.
The year of this extraordinary event has been easily confirmed as in early 1948 almost without question. However, the month and days have been much harder to pinpoint so a range of time can only be given for the latter part of January (when the coldest temperatures closest to ten below were experienced) through February or possibly early March. When on a cold winter night with snow on the ground and the temperature below zero at the stroke of midnight the town’s quiescence was shattered by the ringing of a loud bell. The sound level was more than sufficient to involve the whole community, and it was loud enough to awaken most of the sleeping citizens. The ringing lasted from five to ten minutes, causing some to stir from their beds as they moved from a stunned bewilderment to the realization it was the ringing of a bell. Some lights were turned on and a few went outside in an attempt to make sense of the ringing in the middle of the night. The ringing caused a secondary chorus of barking dogs echoing their discontented howls which continued after the bell fell silent. It did more than interrupt the people’s sleep it troubled their minds during the daytime. Afterwards no one could declare where or even the direction from which the bell thundered forth its loud ringing, but instead they were left to ponder as to what, how, who and why all the commotion of this midnight occurrence that was without parallel in Newton.
On the nearest receiving end of this loud ringing was the family of Owen and Merle Larsen who lived in the old Christiansen (or Garner) home just across the street from Alice Christensen Barker’s unoccupied house and later determined to be within half a block from the bell. They were awakened and somewhat terrified by the earsplitting ringing which they first thought was coming from their attic. Much later, Owen stated the bell sound was “loud enough to roll a person out of bed.” After a few moments of disorientated confusion and without clothing himself for the cold winter air, he went outside but arrived after the ringing had stopped and had no idea where the sound came from. They remained mystified as to what it all was about. About a block away to the south William (Bill) Christiansen and his family heard the bell at their home. Their daughter Bernice, a high school senior, was in bed asleep and it awakened and startled her to the point that she “jumped up and ran down stairs” where she found her parents awake but still in bed. Her father reassured her by telling his daughter to go back to bed as the ringing was “only some kids playing with an old bell.” Sixty years later, Bernice recalled the bell “sounded real close to us,” and they were among the three nearest residences. The morning after the ringing, their neighbor Alphonzo (Fon) Christensen, who had also heard the bell, saw Bill outside and queried him about the bell ringing. Their known responses to the bell ringing from good sources went as follows: Fon asked his neighbor Bill, “Wh-wh-what in th-th-the hell were you doing last night.” Bill, who lived between Fon and the bell’s location, could only respond by parroting his neighbor’s question and manner by asking what Fon had been doing up at his place. Neither man had been able to determine where the ringing came from. Much further away from the bell some six blocks on the far eastern edge of Newton was the home of Sidney and Edries Hansen who also “heard the bell ringing in the middle of the night.” Their first thoughts were that this was an alert of some kind of disaster as when the old school and church caught fire. Quickly they guessed it was just some kids having a good time and mused where in the world they got such a large bell. Edries recalled in 2008 the bell ringing “made for lively conversation everywhere you went.” The following morning the community was buzzing with inquiry as neighbors quizzed each other. At the post office, the stores, the service stations and the school there was excited talk, questions, puzzlement but no consensus, as some did not hear the ringing. Some of the latter perhaps thought the others were just hearing things, and anyhow, was it really a big deal. It wasn’t unless you heard it.
The conversations about the bell ringing quickly became the talk of the town. The doubts of the few who claimed they had not heard the ringing probably ended the following night as at midnight the bell rang again for several minutes and stopped. The next day the chatter about the bell became more “intense,” still there was bafflement as to its source and location. The various discussions covered the loss of the schoolhouse bell back in 1923 and the opinion that the recent ringing came from a much larger bell. The following midnight the bell rang for the third night in succession with the town’s mystery no closer to being solved. Some expressed the view that the bell ringing would continue until the mystery of whom, what and why were discovered. A few of the citizens began to ruminate if there was a connection with the ringing being a warning along the “signs of the times” in a religious connotation. They, perhaps half jokingly, speculated if the Second Coming was at hand, while others may have viewed it with more seriousness. Each morning after the ringing the conversations at the hub of Newton news—the two stores, post office and service stations—focused primarily on the bell ringing and dominated the exchange of news and views like nothing else since the war news. Because there were no ready and rational explanations for the thunderous ringing, it hung dauntingly on the town collective outlook.
At the same time the Larsen family remained in a high state of unrest about the loud bell sounds at night. Preceding either the second or third night’s ringing, they arrived at their home later than usual and placed their children in bed and with the lights out readied themselves for bed. Almost immediately Merle heard a car start up their street from the main highway. She quickly positioned herself to peek out the window and saw a car coming slowly up the inclining street without its headlights. When the car reached the end of her street, it turned to the west. There were no other houses or places where this car had a conceivable need to reach on a cold winter night near midnight. Within a very few minutes the bell rang out in its usual pattern, but this time this family was semi-prepared and able to determine the sound came from the west. In that direction was the empty Christensen house and their large hay barn and other agricultural structures. All this together with the apparent closeness of the ringing led Owen to investigate the area west of his home the next morning, and between car tracks and footprints he discovered a large bell in the old vacant barn. Later the same day, Merle but on her boots and walked over to the barn and saw the bell. An important first element of the mystery was known by two individuals, but they surmised the intent of the unknown bell ringers. Therefore they never reported their discovery, willing to let the scenario play out as planned by the pranksters.
Meanwhile, after Newton experienced the tolling bell for three straight nights, its residents probably expected the same on the fourth night but at midnight there was no bell ringing. The stoppage continued for two or three nights with quiet but no true peace without an explanation to ease the anxiety of the town folks on the earlier ringing. Then the pause ended on another cold night with snow and wind when at midnight the loud ringing echoed through the town from another direction. However, the direction of the sound played a small part, if any, to the second discovery of the large bell. Instead tracks in the snow led a man, who had rented a coop near an old empty barn behind a vacant house in the southeastern part of town, to investigate and follow the tracks into this barn and found the bell. This time the find was reported to the law enforcement officers in Newton and Cache County. They went to the site and secured the bell, confiscated and placed it in the former town constable’s garage under lock and key. The county sheriff checked to see if anyone had reported the lost of a bell, and after a short time a man from Benson claimed it had been stolen from him.
To this point the bell story at Newton lacked a defined human element. The second discovery of the bell solved some of the mystery—what and how—, but who and why remained unanswered. Newton’s town constable had received no good leads during the previous ringing sessions and any physical search had turned up nothing. While the bell itself didn’t point to anyone, it stood to reason that local persons were involved and the weight of the bell indicated that there had to be at least three or four men involved. Although there was no explicit evidence other than the bell itself, it intensified the guessing game of possible candidates in this bell ringing prank. The constable and others, down to high school girls, were questioning their friends as to whether certain young fellows, brothers, etc., were involved. Two specific cases are known. A young lady in her senior year at North Cache High was asked more than once by her classmates and friends if her older brother had anything to do with the bell. In the group making the inquiries were the daughter of the town constable and the daughter of the previous town constable who was closely associated with the case and kept the bell in his locked garage. Because the queried school girl knew nothing, she could only reply in the negative, much later she discovered her brother was involved.
The more significant inquiry came from Perry Nebeker, who was the town constable and was employed by the cheese factory at Amalga to haul milk from Newton to the factory every day. In the latter position he with his flat bed truck each morning around 8 o’clock went to the various homes in town picking up the milk that had been put into ten gallon milk cans. Some in town with few milk cows would transfer the milk cans to the front of their homes where the milk truck traveling along the street could easily pick them up, others with more cows and with ready access to the barn or stable area had the milk truck drive near the milking area to collect the several milk cans. The milk hauler carried the milk to the factory and around noon brought the empty and clean milk cans back to the several places where they had been picked up. Thus the milk hauler was at each pick-up point at least twice each day and often some member of the family helped in the loading and unloading of the milk cans. In the course of this work Mr. Nebeker formed a friendly association with a teenaged boy, Arnold Jenkins, revolving around small talk, local news and humor. During the bell ringing period in one of their discussions, which usually took place on the weekends, the ringing of the bell came up and the constable suggested that Arnold probably knew much about it or who was doing it. Arnold made a quick denial of involvement or knowledge of it, but there would be further exchanges on the same subject.
The discovery and seizure of the bell along with a cessation of the ringing did not immediately end the discussions on the bell ringing. Now those conversations revolved around who the rascals were and what were their motives. There was an upward spike of interest when it was reported that an attempt had been made to remove the bell from where it had been secured with a padlock. Shortly a man from Benson came to Newton and took the bell away. Besides the pranksters, probably only three individuals had actually seen the large bell before the fourth saw it and reported it. Thereafter, many saw the bell before it was placed in Henry Sutherland’s garage until it was taken away. However, to this time only the perpetrators knew the remaining parts of the puzzle and they continued silent about their involvement and reasons for doing it. Two decades later many of the citizens of Newton, past and present, were interviewed for a planned centennial history of Newton. Among the lesser questions posed to most of these persons had to do with the bell ringing in 1948. Many knew of the ringing, whether by personally hearing it or by stories they had heard. To most the passage of time had so obscured the event that the year couldn’t be recalled and they could provide few to no details about the talk in town, and only one person interviewed provided names for those responsible. Newton midnight bell episode was close to being lost and forgotten. The centennial history published in 1969 had a short article on the midnight bell gathered from a man who provided the information in the third person narrating the account while denying he was involved. This brief account somewhat resuscitated the story, ensuring it would not be lost forever. To some extent the old bell story came back to life being told, retold and sometimes changed or embellished. More significant there came a transformation in the minds of those who knew some of the bell affair; yes, it was still a prank but a good one viewed in a more positive way. However, the story behind the ringing story remained a secret unavailable to all but a small number until now.
Now in 2008 - 2009—over sixty years after the ringing—the speculation on the names of those involved and their goal ends with a published admission. A more complete story of the midnight bell can now be told with more confidence than boast. Unlike most humorous and/or mischievous events that occurred in Newton, this one took in the whole community.
The story began in January or February of 1948 at Brigham City. Three young men from Newton—Arnold Jenkins, Marriner Rigby and Max Christiansen—were working for the railroad at the Box Elder County location and in the course of their labors observed the loading of scrap metal into a gondola railroad car with side walls and an open top. Over the course of a few days the loading of the scrap metal revealed among the scrap a “huge church bell” which was positioned on top and close to the edge of the freight car of scrap. The sight of the large bell caused the wheels of the three young men’s minds to spin several revolutions with a resultant conclusion that they could use this bell in some way. They inquired of the persons who headed the salvage scrap loading operation if they could obtain a piece of the scrap, which apparently they did while not describing the piece they wanted as the bell, and were given the okay. Much later, one of the men observed the bell was loaded on top of the freight such that a “small push could easily topple the bell to the ground below. With oral permission the young fellows climbed on the scrap car and quickly learned how heavy the bell was and perhaps found the expected “small push” to be a bit more strenuous as they tipped the heavy bell off the scrap car. According to a participant in this activity the men at the salvage yard were “surprised” when the three Newton men chose the huge bell instead of some lighter piece of scrap metal that could be carried off with ease and be of practical use. The young men’s thinking focused on how they would share their bell with their town. Certainly it involved ringing it rather than making it part of an exhibit on the public square or used in a Pioneer Day celebration, but in the end even the latter two points came forth. Sixty years later, Marriner succinctly put it they wanted to wake the entire town of Newton at midnight. Their original idea evolved into a plan and strategy that by the end was nothing short of being audacious with some personal risks as they chose to have some fun with their prized bell.
However, first they had to get their bell to Newton. The men commuted from their homes in Newton to the work site each day. Arnold Jenkins was furnishing the transportation on that day and he was driving a 1936 Ford Tudor which had nowhere near enough capacity to haul a large bell in the small storage compartment at the back of the car. As the fellows assessed their situation they decided their only viable option was to remove the front passenger seat and place the bell inside the body of the car. After their work day for the railroad ended, they removed the passenger side car seat then drove to where the bell lay on the ground where it had fallen. They found the heavy bell, which was estimated to weigh over 300 pounds, was about “all that the three . . . could muster,” so with some difficulty they put the bell through the right hand door and positioned the bell on the right interior of the car. Then the driver and his two passengers got into the Ford and started for Newton, some twenty-five miles away. As they traveled they discussed further their plan to use their bell, and by the time they reached their home town they had decided to keep the bell a secret as far as possible. A small difference in the retold stories arises when one participant had them taking the bell directly to an old barn on the northwestern edge of town, while one of his partners had them taking the bell to Arnold’s place and hiding it in the family’s garage for a short time.
1936 Ford Tudor Touring Sedan similar to Arnold Jenkins’ car.
Whether taken directly or after a short time in the Jenkins’ garage, the bell was hauled to an old unused barn known locally as Widow Alice Christensen’s place on northwestern edge of town. The home was now unoccupied as Alice had recently married William J. Barker (Aug. 19, 1947) and was living at the Barker home across from the school in the middle of town. The barn had not been used for several years. One of the participants, Marriner Rigby, under direct questioning stated they did not survey the town for the ideal location to place their bell or visit the old barn before taking the bell there. He recalled that his friend Max Christiansen chose the place and seemed acquainted with the barn and situation there, and believed that possibly Max could have visited the barn alone just prior to taking the bell to that spot. However, the choice of this unused barn was probably the best place in Newton for what the fellows had in mind. It was the most isolated that could be found in town, the closest residents were only half a block away to the east, with two other families living on the same block down by the main highway, and others just a short distance beyond. Thus, their work in the vacant barn could not proceed with much visible activity and noise and had to done with a minimum of light. From the beginning they realized that to heft the bell into a raised ringing position they needed some help. According to Arnold’s account, they chose to use a three-quarter inch “chain falls” or hand-powered chain hoist that used mechanical advantage to lift objects by chain but with a short lifting length. Max was able to get the lifting devise from his father under the guise that Arnold had broken a spring on his car that had to be replaced. Having secured the chain falls devise and anything else thought necessary, they took it with the bell to the vacant barn.
They went to the barn at 11 p.m. and carried the bell inside. With the aid of flashlights, they began the work of placing the bell into a ringing position. They attached the chain falls to a heavy support structure of the barn and to the top of the bell and physically hoisted the bell to head or shoulder height. This height of the bell provided the men with the ability to use their hands to force the clapper inside the bell to strike the side of the bell. The pictures below give an example of the situation they faced in the barn. Using a chain fall hoisting device the bell was in its elevated position in a short time which one participant recalled was about half-an-hour. Then, they had a short wait for they chose to ring the bell at the proverbial witching-hour of twelve o’clock midnight with the temperature recalled by one of the ringers at ten degrees below zero.
Photos: Interior view of a Newton barn constructed in 1914. Although not the Christensen barn its period of construction and type were similar to one another. This barn was patterned like most Newton hay barns upon the timber framed post-and-beam structure. It had a gabled roof. At the very interior top ran a metal track for the Jackson Fork assembly that carried loads of hay into the barn. It would have been extremely difficult to reach this track without a tall ladder to attach one end of the hoist to while the horizontal trusses or framework would have been much easier to access.
At the chosen time they manually slammed the heavy double ball clapper against the side of the bell repeatedly and the still cold air was filled with the sound of a bell ringing for a period of five to ten minutes. For the bell ringers there was the physical exertion of actuating the clapper and enduring the loud ringing which proved “painful for the three ringers.” Over sixty years later Arnold reflected that his present hearing problems could have come from the earlier experience with the closeness to the loud ringing. While one of the ringers thought six decades later they had little concern of being caught in the act of ringing the bell, another suggested they were apprehensive and took needed precautions. They knew the large bell had the capacity for loud sound but did not know if their way of manually moving the clapper would provide the amount of noise they desired. They did not know how the citizens of Newton would react to the loud ringing; and there was certainly a possibility someone could coming looking. Probably for this latter reason they limited the ringing time which hopefully would prevent anyone from determining the location of the bell yet long enough to get the town’s attention. After finishing the ringing session, the ringers lowered the bell to the ground and watched for anything unusual. What they heard the most of was a chorus of dogs barking as “it seemed like every dog in town” began howling and continued after the ringing stopped. They observed some human reactions to the ringing with lights coming on and people trying to silence their dogs. Their view of observation was very limited, and it would have taken a bird’s-eye view to have judged the affect on the whole community. The ringing brought no cars or persons in the direction of the ringing site in the barn. They waited a period of time and when all became quiet they left and went to their homes.
While the bell ringers had the thrill and excitement of ringing the bell, their delight reached its maximum when the ringing came to dominate conversations in Newton. They were having the veritable time of their lives, fun to the utmost, so they thought. Their plan and activity had become overnight a mystery of some proportions. They were doing something interesting, active, exciting and creative. Shucking the wearisome and tedious they were becoming like Huckleberry Finn and making their ownexciting adventure. They were sure that all of their efforts had been worth it and they wanted more. The following night they repeated their performance and did it again on the third night retaining the short ringing session each time. Then after three consecutive nights of ringing, they took a pause in the ringing of the bell. Possibly they thought by now that some people might either remain outside their homes around midnight or be in a position to be there while the bell was ringing to zero in on the direction of the sound. If such were the case, the would-be-discoverers were in for a disappointment. As midnight approached on the fourth night there were undoubtedly many in town anticipating another session of ringing but the bell did not ring. Perhaps the stopping of the ringing had a dual impact in the town, surely many were relieved by the stillness while others worried that the silence was just a pause or omen for something else equally worrisome. During this period the community in general was not pleased with the bell ringing in the night, regarding it as beyond a nuisance in disturbing the peace and their sleep. However, there was one notable exception that was announced from the stand at a Sunday evening sacrament meeting and recalled much later by a member of this ward. Either Bishop LeRoy Salisbury or one of his councilors expressed the feeling of the bishopric to the entire congregation that they hoped the bell ringing would continue as the ward’s attendance at religious services had significantly increased.
Sixty years after the ringing, two of the ringers disagree on the status of the bell after each ringing session. One claimed the bell was lowered to the ground and placed in his car and taken to his garage after each ringing except the last one. This would have involved lifting and transporting of the bell several times, forcing the three men to come together again at the garage to unload the bell, or if left in the car and making the vehicle of less use to the owner and increasing the chance of the discovery of the bell in the garage. The other accomplice said they lowered the bell to the ground but left the bell in the first barn. The two daytime witnesses to the bell in the barn noted above were followed by a night witness during the pause in the ringing. One of the bell ringers, Max Christiansen, and his close friend and neighbor, Kay Benson, were out on a date with young ladies whom both would marry, and they cut their courting shorter than usual. After dropping off the two girls, Max took Kay to the Christensen barn on the outskirts of northwestern Newton. With the aid of a flashlight they went inside the barn to check that all was okay with the prized bell that was temporarily silenced and found it was just like the bell ringers had last left it. This was when Kay first learned who possessed the bell and the only time that he ever saw the bell. He had heard the bell ring a few times, and had listened to much of the town talk about the midnight bell at church and at his work at LaVoir Dowdle’s service station. Among the stories or tales from one of the ringers was the claim that Owen Larsen was the “only person” interested to go looking for the bell at night. According to this account Owen made his approach to the barn at night and only by throwing rotten eggs at Owen was he prevented from catching the men with the bell. Owen, in a couple of interviews on the ringing, never mentioned this incident, and his wife stated that Owen did not go over to the barn at night, only in the daytime.
There were probably several reasons why the ringers let the bell be silent for a few nights. Possibly they wanted or needed a break from a regimen that it had put into their lives. Then again other factors ran up alerts such as the increased “intense” talk about the midnight bell, including the town constable’s comments to Arnold that he probably knew all about the bell or who was ringing it. There was enough along this line that the three participants began taking the precaution of not being seen in public together too often. Thus, according to Arnold, on some of the ringing nights they would leave home separately and meet at a rendezvous site and then get into one car and go do the ringing. The same source expressed the notion that his father and Max’s father were close to figuring out the situation. As noted earlier Max had been able to use his father’s chain falls hoist by stating that Arnold’s car had a broken spring that had to be replaced. Some time later Alvin Christiansen saw LaVon Jenkins and asked if Arnold was able to fix his car. LaVon responded that he didn’t know Arnold’s car needed work but he had been told Max’s car need repair. The chain falls remain away from the owner and the various stories left more questions than answers, allowing the fathers to have suspicions that their sons were using the hoist on something other than their cars.
When the bell ringing was halted for a time, the apprehension of the town folk continued as the puzzle remained as no one could connected the dots of how such a bell had been obtained, where the bell was rung from, who was doing it and why. The bell ringers were struggling with their own problem of temptations over whether to let the quiet continue or return to the “thrill” and joy of ringing the bell. They could quit before they were caught, being cautious and prudent. On the other hand here and now they possessed the bell and could have more fun with it and continue their adventure. According to one of the ringers, this internal tussle became “too difficult to contain and several nights later they were back at it.”However, they decided they needed to move the bell to another location, but in Newton in the late 1940s there were few suitable locations, and none as good as the first old barn. In their minds and/or by actual survey they checked out possible places in the town.
Herein the inside story becomes a bit complicated or problematic due to the long interval between the actual ringing of the bell and the reporting of this action, thus some of it will be quickly covered without much comment. At this juncture one of the participants relates that the ringers took the bell uptown in Newton to the overgrown lots of Hyrum Larsen (east of his home) and mounted the bell in a large cottonwood tree and rang the bell. Arnold related that once he rang the bell alone while Max was in Smithfield on a date and Marriner was in Wellsville, and the two accomplices heard the bell ring at their respective distant locations. Neither of these incidents can be confirmed by the other two bell ringers or described by others in Newton at the time. The next ringing site agreed upon by all the participants and others who heard or saw the bell was at a small empty barn in the southeastern portion of town behind the old vacant Johnson place. It was some seven and a half blocks by way of the streets from the first barn or less than six as sound travels, but was handicapped by much more traffic and more open to the views of others from the west, north and east. They set up the bell for ringing again employing lateness at night, speed and other cautions so as to not draw attention to the location. They transported the bell to the second barn in a car and carried the bell and associated equipment into the barn and set up the bell for ringing, using only a flashlight or two. The experience at the first location had been helpful and the bell was raised a short distance off the ground and made ready for ringing.
At midnight the bell was rung again (whether for the fourth, or fifth or even sixth time) in Newton. There were three residences within half a block of the place, but all of Newton could hear the bell and those in this southeastern section received the full blast. For the realists or pessimists in town they felt vindicated, after believing the ringing would return and continue until the bell was found. While the bell ringers were again enjoying the elation of adventure in waking the whole town, they had second thoughts about the security of this second barn location. According to Arnold, they planned to move the bell after the ringing to a more secure location, in accordance after the ringing they lowered the bell to the ground and rolled it over to a corner of the barn and covered it with straw and quickly left the barn. Their intention was to return later and take the bell away from this barn, but a “snow squall” with a strong wind caused their plans to change. They believed the bell was hidden well enough and they could retrieve it the following night under better conditions. Once again the ringers thought they had pulled it off and were making future plans for “their bell” which included hiding it in a haystack and then taking it to another small community for more midnight ringing, letting things settle down in their hometown.
However, the young men’s luck ran out on them this time, much too soon for their liking. The next morning tracks in the snow, according to two of the ringers, led to the discovery of the bell and this time the find was reported. Clyde Christensen, living nearby, had rented the coop next to the barn to brood chickens. The morning after the last ringing he went to check the coop and discovered car tracks and other signs leading to the old barn. He investigated and saw the bell in the old barn. According to one of the ringers, the discoverer had experienced some trouble with the law previously and didn’t want to be connected with the bell controversy raging in Newton, so he reported his find. County Sheriff Wesley Malmberg and Town Constable Perry Nebeker were notified along with Henry Sutherland, the former constable, and all went to see the bell. The county sheriff said he would check to see if anyone had reported losing a bell, while the Newton officials would seize the bell and hold it pending later developments. In the interim, the news of the discovery spread through town with amazing speed. At the Newton school (with first through sixth grades) where every student went home for lunch, the news of finding the bell came in some form and was accompanied by its location. When the school dismissed for the day at 3:30 p.m., a small group of classmates quickly walked the three blocks and saw the bell in the old barn with several adults also viewing the bell. Two of those school students who saw the bell in this barn recollected that the bell was not on the ground but suspended a short distance off the ground where it could be rung. More students and adults came by before the bell was moved to Henry Sutherland’s garage where it was stored with the door secured by an outside padlock.
The bell ringers obtained information that a man from Benson Ward had claimed the bell saying it had been stolen from him. The three Newton pranksters knew that was not right but they couldn’t come forward to claim the bell as their manner of obtaining it was somewhat irregular, and then they would be admitting to disturbing the peace several times during the past two weeks. Apparently the bell ringers made a survey of the situation in and around the Sutherland garage before making a final decision to try and retrieve their bell. They brought a fourth person into their plans as Horace Christiansen had a long handled bolt cutter. The following night while MIA was in session at the church the four men made the effort to get the bell from the locked garage. Two of the three accounts of this attempt are very similar and compatible while the other version is vastly different. According to the agreeing sources, the attempt to get the bell went as follows: Marriner’s version came from a written question—“Can you relate any details of this try?” His response in his own words was: “Max and Horace went to work on the lock on the garage while Arnold and I backed the car up close. Then Max told us to park elsewhere, and while doing so, Henry Sutherland was around and we all scampered into an empty nearby lot and hid.”Max related the story in his third person manner with no names given and when the bolt cutters were used to cut the harden steel of the lock the resultant loud snap sounded “like a pistol shot” (Max’s words). This noise alerted Sutherland, causing a stir in his house and he went outside to check it out. This spooked the four fellows who fled after their plans went awry. The bell ringers abandoned their bell which had been their source of fun for over a week.
There was an additional aspect to the chronicle that came after the failed attempt to get the bell and before the man from Benson could pick it up. It was a last-ditch effort to reclaim the bell. The sole source of the following information comes from Arnold Jenkins, and it unfolded after the bell had been taken by the town constable but it was still not known who were guilty for the midnight ringing. Arnold and his friend, the town constable-milk hauler, Perry Nebeker had another conversation that turned to the bell ringing. This time Nebeker stated that the bell ringing had been “a good prank as it really put a spark in the old town!” The constable went on to say he was pretty sure that Arnold and Max were somehow involved and he assured Arnold that they would not be in trouble over ringing the bell and disturbing the peace. This time Arnold went on to tell Nebeker how and where they obtained the bell, and explained he could get a bill of sale for the bell from the salvage yard in Brigham City. Furthermore, they would give the bell to the town, a suggestion the ringers had possibly thought of earlier. Arnold obtained a bill of sale or paper from the salvage yard and gave it to Constable Nebeker. By this time the man from Benson had picked up the bell, still Nebeker said he would get it back from him, but when he tried the Benson man had already sold the bell for scrap. For some reason or other, there appears to have been little to nothing done by town officials in regard to the bell ringing pranksters. There was no general disclosure in the case except the finding of the bell, and as a result the case or situation was quietly allowed to resolve itself with finding the bell and disposing of it. The mostly likely explanation for this could be for one or two reasons; first, the constable and others he informed belatedly of the named participants decided against pursuing the pranksters after the bell was removed, or they never discovered the names of the bell ringers.
Six decades later Marriner, one of the bell ringers involved, wrote in May of 2008: “No one knew the identity of the three young bell ringers until much later in their lives when they broke their silence of the mysterious events—much as the silence was broken at midnight.” In addition, he was the first to put his story in writing and supplied the names of the bell ringers—Arnold Jenkins, Max Christiansen and Marriner Rigby. The three bell ringers were indeed circumspect and guarded about the whole affair. Before long two of the bell ringers left Newton with only one of them remaining in Newton his entire life (except when away on missions). Most of those interviewed in the 1967-69 period concerning their feelings at the time of the ringing never suggested that they or others concluded it might have been a paranormal phenomenon from hindsight for it was all too easy after the discovery of the bell to conclude that they knew it was a prank all along. Probably most did and others were not sure about anything except the bell rang loud at midnight. However, there were no names offered publicly as to who was responsible for this community prank of ringing the loud bell. While their personal parts in the story remained largely undisclosed, the whole short episode of bell ringing was largely forgotten or passed over. But that was not the end of the story for a concluding chapter still remained to be “tolled” in its own way.
An Assessment of the Bell Ringing Episode
Perhaps the best way to portray this development would be to make an evaluation of the bell ringing episode. Probably the three pranksters had gone about as far as circumstances made possible, and they had about as much fun from ringing their bell as they could have expected. They were fortunate enough to have passed through it without being detected or exposed. If their object was “to wake the entire town of Newton,” as one of the ringers observed from hindsight, they had accomplished their goal at least four times, and experienced a good time and amusement beyond their expectations. By the time of Newton's centennial some twenty years after the affair, the bell ringing story was close to being forgotten with the passage of time and failure of an official resolution. Then after 1969 came a revival or resuscitation of the story with some published details reiterating a few of the experiences from two decades earlier, ensuring that it would not fade away or be lost forever. Instead, it came back to life being told, retold and sometimes embellished countless times and not just in town. Although the bell ringers’ names were seldom cited, their personal roles became more a part of the story. Some stories, including mysteries, are just fun while others carry little interest. The bell story caught on and fascinated the people; even though some of the facts remained unknown, such as to the responsible parties.
The bell ringers had indeed given their home town several nights of excitement and created a situation where the bell ringing became the talk of the town during this period. However, in the long-term their greatest contribution was not along the line of excitement or mystery but in the area of what they did for Newton’s history. Belatedly it was woven in as one of the most interesting things that ever occurred to engross the minds and hearts of the small community. The affair with the bell, in time, took on a creative expression or nuance that made it more than just an event or happening in the town’s past. As fate had it and far removed from the perpetuators’ objectives, time along with the preservation of the story and the countless times it was repeated took the bell ringing story and turned it into a folktale, then into folklore and possibly beyond into something approaching a legend. As such it became absorbed and assimilated by the community as a whole in its history. If the perpetrators had been caught in the act or their identities revealed at the time, this metamorphous most likely wouldn’t have followed as it did. If one should search for other analogous events from Newton’s past to make a comparison or contrast, the bell incident would dominate the issue, and today none would have as special a place or remembrance in the town’s memory, psyche or history as the midnight bell. It had significantly gained stature, becoming one of the town’s most noted and favorite tales, which finds voice as much for the entertainment value as the happening, and all due to the daring resourcefulness of three young men living (as the magpie flies) a block apart in northeastern Newton. They had with amazing speed and ingenuity taken a bell from a scrap car and made it part of a bold plan and carried it off with considerable ability and surprising wherewithal—not bad for three young fellows pulling Newton’s biggest caper or prank. Now some sixty years after their bell ringing, their names are revealed in print for the first time with their permission and acknowledgment as the originators of this classic folklore of Newton.
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Updated: 03 Sep 2010
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