116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Time Machine: The church bell that disappeared
Bell from Iowa City First Presbyterian was hidden, then spirited away to Utah
The story of the bell that once hung in the belfry of the First Presbyterian church in Iowa City has appeared in newspapers across Iowa and other states over the past 175 years.
The church was organized in the fall of 1840 — six years before Iowa became a state — and the Rev. Michael Hummer became its pastor in the spring of 1841. The congregation met in homes or in public buildings and began building a church in 1844 on a lot donated by church member Chauncey Swan at Clinton and Market streets.
The Presbytery aspired to build a college in Lee County and sent Hummer back east in 1846 to raise funds for the college and the church. While there, he was presented with a church belfry bell, crafted in Troy, N.Y. The inscription engraved on the bell read, “First Presbyterian Church of Iowa City – 1846.”
Because the church was still under construction when Hummer returned to Iowa City, he built a frame inside the east door of the new Capitol building, erected in 1842, to store the bell.
Hummer was inordinately proud of the bell. He liked to demonstrate the bell’s tone by tapping it and would explain the bell’s makeup to anyone who would listen.
By the time the church was completed in 1848 and the bell hung in its steeple, relations between Hummer and his congregation had become strained. The congregation questioned his use of funds on his trip east and wanted an accounting. Hummer refused to give it. Instead, he demanded more money for expenses he said he incurred as a representative of the church.
Hummer was ordered to leave the church and the city. He moved to Keokuk in far southeast Iowa, taking furnishings, money and Bibles with him.
Attempted bell heist
In Keokuk, Hummer and some followers began a sect called the New Lights, which focused on spiritualism, mesmerism and clairvoyance. As he set up his new temple, he remembered “his” bell in Iowa City.
In late summer of 1848, Hummer and his friend, Dr. J.W. Margrave, returned quietly to Iowa City with ropes and pulleys. Hummer climbed a ladder to the belfry and began to lower the bell, while Margrave waited below with a wagon.
Since the process took some time, curious people began to gather.
“Word was sent downtown,” pioneer historian Gilbert R. Irish wrote in 1903. “A few men with teams (of horses) soon appeared. Mr. Margrave and his team (were) ordered to a distance, and when the bell came down, it was received in the wagon of Eli Myers. Anthony Cole removed the ladder … and Mr. Hummer was left a prisoner in the belfry.
“Dr. Margrave was given the choice of keeping perfectly quiet or taking an involuntary bath at the foot of Dillon’s island. Mr. Myers drove off with the bell. … In the meantime the citizens of the town gathered to witness the strange proceedings of the man in the tower. Upon the refusal of his request for a ladder, Mr. Hummer became wild with rage and hurled such missiles as he could lay hold of at the crowd below.”
The others who helped spirit away the bell were A.B. Newcomb, Samuel Shellady, James Miller and David Lamereau. Remember those last two names .
When Margrave was finally allowed to help Hummer down, the pair searched for the bell without success. Years later, Hummer reached a settlement with the church where he won ownership of the bell. But the bell was gone, so Hummer got some cash.
Several years later, when the bell-nappers felt it was finally safe to retrieve the bell, they went to its hiding place — in the Iowa River near Rapid Creek. The bell was gone.
Years later, it was discovered Lamereau and Miller had retrieved the bell and taken it to Salt Lake City, where they sold it to the Mormons, who placed it on their tabernacle. It was later moved to a schoolhouse, where it developed a crack and was put in storage.
The missing bell
Meanwhile, the First Presbyterian church in Iowa City burned to the ground in 1856. Work began on a new church.
In 1868, First Presbyterian’s then-minister, the Rev. S.M. Osmond, wrote to Brigham Young asking if he had the First Presbyterian bell was in Salt Lake City.
Young, the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, confirmed the bell was there and in good condition. He said it would be shipped to Iowa City if the congregation could properly identify it and pay the shipping charges.
Nothing came of that.
In 1869, the new First Presbyterian Church opened with a 152-foot spire and a new 3,041-pound bell inside it. An 1877 windstorm blew off the spire. The church built a battlement tower around the bell, which hadn’t been damaged in the storm.
In 1895, First Presbyterian’s original bell — or “Hummer’s Bell” as the Mormons called it — was seen in Salt Lake City by historian Irish’s brother, Johnson County Civil Engineer Charles W. Irish, and his daughter, Elizabeth.
The First Presbyterian congregation moved to 2701 Rochester Ave. in 1975 and took the church bell with it.
The old church — known as Old Brick — became a venue for special events that year with the advent of Friends of the Old Brick Presbyterian Church, a nonprofit, which has preserved the structure.