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Stolen school bell returned after 96 years

CARLSBAD — Once upon a time, school children were shuffled to school by the ringing of a loud brass bell.

At the Carlsbad School in 1922, teachers rang such a bell until one day it went missing. For 96 years, very few in the city, or North County, knew what happened to the bell or the scofflaws who made off with it.

It was lost to history.

But on March 21, Florence Oliver, 79, of San Marcos and formerly Carlsbad, returned the bell to Carlsbad Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Ben Churchill. Oliver said she wanted to wait three more years to return the bell, but due to her health, she felt now was the right time.

Missing for 96 years, this bell used to ring students to class in 1922. Photo by Steve Puterski

“I would’ve loved to have that bell three more years,” Oliver said. “I fall down a lot. I’m just afraid one of these times I wouldn’t make it back to my house. I wanted that bell to be where it’s supposed to be. That bell is at home, finally.”

Even after 96 years of hiding in plain sight, the bell remains in tip-top condition, she and Churchill said.

No rust or cracks are visible, just a missing cap at the top of the handle. Oliver said the family never polished it, but it has withstood the test of time.

Oliver said her mother’s cousins, Robert and James Carpenter, swiped the bell from the Pine Avenue campus just before her mother and father married. As a joke, the cousins placed the bell under the mattress of Grace Edith Curtis (Carpenter) and her husband, Charles Henry Curtis.

The mattress was loaded with springs, so as the two lay on the bed, the bell rang, giving all in earshot a laugh at the consummation of the marriage.

“The boys went over and stole the bell from the school,” Oliver said laughing. “They put the bell under the bed and nobody knew it until they went to bed. Of course, everybody had a good time laughing about it because the bell is very, very loud.”

When Curtis died, the bell passed to Oliver’s brother, Robert James Curtis, then it passed to Oliver’s other brother, Charles Henry Curtis. In 1976, after her brother passed away, Oliver inherited the bell.

The school eventually replaced the bell, although Sarah Dana, senior librarian at the Carlsbad Library, said there was no record of a missing bell in 1922. There is little documentation of the bell’s history, she added.

Still, Curtis recalled another humorous tale of the bell’s power. Born in 1940, she began attending the school, but every time a teacher rang the new bell, Curtis bolted home because she thought it was the stolen bell calling her home. A teacher would then fetch her, nearly every day, after she ran home.

“We were a little confused at first because we weren’t sure what she was describing,” Churchill said. “She came in and told us some of the backstory. It was a really cool story and has this item that had got to be at least 100 years old.”

When Oliver came into the CUSD’s office, it came as quite the surprise to Churchill and the staff. No one knew of the bell or its colorful past among the Curtis and Oliver families.

It appears no reports, from law enforcement, the Carlsbad Journal or Oceanside Blade newspapers, were ever filed. But Oliver said it was time for the bell to return home.

Churchill said the meeting was a lighthearted affair and even rang the bell, which still lives up to its reputation as loud. He said he is open to ideas for the bell, such as displaying it at each school, but most likely the bell will be housed in a glass case with a placard at the district office.

The library, Carlsbad Historical Society and Carlsbad Police Department have no records of the bell’s origins or any law enforcement reports.

“Our review of the October issues of the publication revealed the wedding announcement for Grace Carpenter and Charles Oliver that notes a ‘noisy party of congratulations,’” Dana said via email. “We didn’t find any articles describing a theft of a bell or any articles describing the school receiving a new bell from this time period.”

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