Still Rings True: The Story of Our Bell

by Andy Schwebel '22
This story appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of Indian Springs Magazine.

The bronze bell that sat atop Indian Springs’ original dining hall from 1952 to 2021 has undergone restoration and has been reinstalled in the facade of the Kayser-Samford Community Commons, visible from the front entrance and inside the private dining room.

Indian Springs young alum Andy Schwebel ’22 served as Mayor in the Fall of 2021 when construction began on the Community Commons. Upon his graduation, Andy penned the following essay on the history and significance of the bell to our school.

“It’s said that our school’s original director, “Doc” Armstrong, once walked into a class, took off his shoes, pointed at a chair, and asked: “Which do you think is more real, this chair or your idea of this chair?” I am not personally familiar with the chair in question and therefore don’t think that I can answer conclusively. But it still might be illuminating to apply Armstrong’s query to some iconic Indian Springs objects, like, for example, our bell.

Really, the bell has had two lives. In its first, it was perched on the front of a Southern Railway steam locomotive. Here, it had a simple job: ringing at depots and crossings to warn of the incoming train. The ‘idea’ of the bell was, perhaps, more interesting. 

The Southern Railway was born in 1894 but had predecessors dating to the 1820s. The bulk of its creation, though, happened in the decades immediately following the Civil War. Southern Railway trains would have pulled segregated cars over tracks built by convict leasing, effectively slavery, but the sound of their bells still signified the revolutionary industrialization and post-war reformation of the South. They were, therefore, harbingers of the economic changes that ultimately moved Alabama toward the slow and ongoing overthrow of its old power structures. These changes also, incidentally, created the industrial wealth of the Woodward family that eventually became Indian Springs School.

The bell’s second life began in the 1950s when the Southern became the first major American railroad to go fully diesel. Because of this, the railway went on a philanthropic spree, donating bells from their retired steam locomotives to churches, courthouses, and schools across the South. In 1955, one of them landed at our newly-opened Indian Springs School. Initially, it had a well-defined job. M.D. Smith ’59 recalls how it rang daily at mealtime so that the students without watches would know when to eat.

It didn’t take long, though, for the bell to outlive its usefulness and just languish on the dining hall as an iconic symbol of our school, but nothing else. But even if the usefulness of the bell had diminished, the ‘idea’ of the bell was stronger than ever. 

As the crown of the dining hall, it was the most obvious symbol of our school’s unique community. Despite students’ differences, they all enjoyed sharing meals and community responsibilities under the shadow of the bell. Further, it was a link to the past; I don’t personally know many kids who graduated from Indian Springs 10, 20, 30, or 70 years ago, but I know they ate under the same bell as I have. It’s no wonder, then, that while private secondary schools across the country have to use coats of arms to show what they’re all about, we can use a stylized bell as a logo and understand everything automatically.

Next year, our bell will have a shiny new glass case in our new Community Commons. From its perch, it won’t have any trains or mealtimes to announce. But it will cast its watchful eye over us students as we continue to Learn through Living. So long as we use our burgeoning talents for good, it will watch society progress, just as it has since it was cast by the Southern Railway. This is the ‘idea’ of the bell we at Indian Springs have in our heads, and it’s this idea that makes it real.”

190 Woodward Drive, Indian Springs, Alabama 35124
Phone: 205.988.3350
Indian Springs School, an independent school recognized nationally as a leader in boarding and day education for grades 8-12, serves a talented and diverse student body and offers admission to qualified students regardless of race, gender, religion, national origin, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. Located in Indian Springs, Alabama, just south of Birmingham, the school does not discriminate on the basis of race, gender, religion, national origin, ethnicity, or sexual orientation in the administration of its educational policies, admission policies, scholarship and loan programs, or athletic and other school-administered programs.

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