Saga of the Bells Comes Full Circle

Times Staff Writer

The ladies did the heavy lifting 100 years ago.

So it was fitting that their descendants in the California Federation of Women’s Clubs and the Native Daughters of the Golden West on Tuesday helped ring in the El Camino Real bell’s second century.

Members of the two groups helped state officials unveil a replica of the 85-pound cast-iron bell that pioneering women’s organizations erected Aug. 15, 1906, in downtown Los Angeles as the state’s first road marker.

Eventually, 450 of the decorative bells lined the route of the state’s first “highway,” which began as a meandering dirt path linking the missions.


Decades later, though, most of the bells had disappeared from the sides of “the King’s Highway,” as the route was known. Some were victims of road-widening projects, crashing cars and thieves. Others were simply replaced by the numbered signs that came to label state roadways.

It was a sign of nostalgia 10 years ago when California Department of Transportation leaders began mapping plans to restore the vintage bell markers along the original El Camino Real route, which largely follows U.S. 101.

Since then, the state has installed 555 new bells at about two-mile intervals along El Camino Real between San Diego and Sonoma, with women’s clubs and other organizations placing hundreds more at other locations.

Each has been cast from the original molds made 100 years ago by women’s club member Mrs. Armitage C.E. Forbes, the mastermind of the civic coalition that created the original highway markers.

A hands-on leader, Forbes herself poured molten metal into the bell-shaped forms in a corner of a foundry owned by her husband. She eventually created a business entity, California Bell Co., to manufacture them. Bearing the legend “El Camino Real” and the dates “1769 & 1906,” each marker also had a small sign on its post showing the distance to the next town or mission.

As women’s club members installed the bells, the California State Automobile Assn. and the Automobile Club of Southern California took over their maintenance. The state’s Division of Highways assumed responsibility in 1933.

It’s not surprising that Forbes and other women were highway pioneers, said Tammy Guensler, a resident of Carmichael, near Sacramento, who is president of the California Federation of Women’s Clubs.

“Men were starting to pay more attention and take women a little more seriously at that time. A hundred years ago is when women were having a little more freedom,” Guensler said Tuesday.

“Why do you think we have white lines down the middle of roads? It’s because June McCarroll, a member of the Indio Women’s Club, was run off the road by a truck in 1917,” she said. “She started the campaign to get the lines painted on streets.”

El Camino Real historian Max Kurillo of El Cajon, near San Diego, said the two women’s groups worked on the bells from 1906 to 1930.

By the time Forbes died in 1951 at age 90, she had sold California Bell. The long-dormant firm was owned by retired La Canada Flintridge businessman Joe Rice until 2000. That’s when mortgage banker John Kolstad entered the picture.

Growing up in Whittier, Kolstad had been fascinated by a rusty old El Camino Real bell at Whittier Boulevard and Colima Road. He decided to find one like it for the backyard of his home in the Bay Area community of Saratoga.

When he tracked down Rice, the 84-year-old wouldn’t sell him one of the spare bells that was crammed into his Oakwood Avenue garage along with the original foundry molds and boxes of historic photographs and documents. But Rice would sell him California Bell.

“All I wanted was one bell. But I knew if I didn’t pick up the torch, it would all be gone -- these old patterns and forms and history would all end up in the junk yard,” Kolstad told a crowd of about 100 at Tuesday’s unveiling across from the Olvera Street plaza.

With a nod to members of Guensler’s group and Adeline Coronado’s Native Daughters of the Golden West in the audience, Kolstad added: “People think the padres put these bells up. No, the ladies did it.”

The revived California Bell sells authentically cast copies of the original El Camino Real bell for about $2,000. They come with 6-pound clappers. To thwart vandals, those erected next to public roadways do not.

So the ceremonial bell on Los Angeles Street stood silent as Diana McFarland, a member of the San Diego Mission Bells club, admired it with fellow bell collector Mary Anderson. McFarland owns 450 bells, Anderson 1,500.

After the ceremony, fourth-grade teacher Dorothy Waite and principal Wendy Wardlow walked a short distance to La Placita Church on Main Street, to view the original 1906 El Camino Bell. It was restored and rededicated in 1998.

Their Del Mar Heights Elementary School in Del Mar has one of Kolstad’s bells. A parent bought it in June for the campus as a salute to the California history taught there and to its location near El Camino Real. Waite persuaded Caltrans officials to give her the one-of-a-kind El Camino Real bell logo that decorated the ceremony’s speaker’s lectern.

It will be hung in the school’s main office.

To the relief of teachers and administrators alike, their school’s El Camino Real bell doesn’t have a clapper either.