El Camino Real Bells
The early tourism industry in California was built partially on the romanticized legends of the California Missions. Starting in the late 1880s and peaking in the teens and ’20s, tourists were treated to a story of benevolent mission fathers bestowing the benefits of civilization on the wild California Indians, who then lived happily making adobe bricks to build more missions. Literature such as “Ramona” by Helen Hunt Jackson, and “The Mission Play” by Tujunga’s John Steven McGroarty built on these fanciful treatments of history. The restoration of the crumbling missions, and the building of replica missions out of sugar cubes and balsa wood by seemingly every fourth grader in the California school system, cemented firmly the entire mission legend.
Part of the legend was the story of the “El Camino Real” – the King’s Highway – a road that connected the missions by a day’s horseback ride along the 600 miles from San Diego to San Francisco. In 1892 a fan of mission history in Pasadena launched an effort to commemorate and mark the El Camino Real. Ten years later the effort was picked up the California Confederation of Women’s Clubs, which probably included as a contributor to the effort our own La Crescenta Woman’s Club. They were able to make concrete progress, and in 1906 the first bell marker of over 450 El Camino Real roadside bells was installed at Olvera Street, mounted beneath a distinctive tall sheep-crook shaped pipe stanchion. Over the years many disappeared until just a handful remained, but in 2000 a federal grant made it possible for the state to mount a replacement effort.
I think most of us can remember childhood car trips north along Highway 101 and glimpsing the enigmatic bell markers of the El Camino Real spaced along the side of the road. They often looked out of place along the busy freeway, and so attracted our attention, and for some of us fired our imaginations. One such person was John Kolstad, a middle-aged mortgage broker living in the Bay area. He had grown up in Whittier, near one of the remaining original El Camino Real bell markers at the intersection of Whittier Boulevard and Colima. It had stuck in his mind and fueled in him a passion for mission history. In 1998, he decided he’d like to have a replica bell for his backyard in San Francisco, and did some digging to find out where to purchase one. His search led him to, of all places, La Cañada.
It turns out that the original bells were made by the California Bell Company based in L.A. They stopped producing bells in the ’30s and their patterns, molds, and memorabilia eventually ended up in the hands of La Cañada resident Joe Rice. In 1960, he packed the entire inventory of the California Bell Company into his garage on Oakwood Avenue, put a lock on it and forgot it for 40 years.
In 2000, when Kolstad finally tracked down Joe Rice who was then in his late 80s, and asked him to sell him a bell, Rice told him it was all or nothing. He convinced Kolstad to buy the entire California Bell Company.
Kolstad now had his garden bell, but he also had the means to make more. A little asking around to see who wanted a bell earned him a huge and enthusiastic customer, the state of California. Kolstad was now the reluctant contractor for 555 new bells, which have since been reinstalled along the route of the El Camino Real. Private orders have flooded in, and individual communities outside the range of the state project such as Encinitas and Palo Alto have ordered their own sets. Kolstad has branched out to other historic mission bells and bell applications such as bell streetlights and small collectible bells. He’s produced thousands of bells since buying the company from Joe Rice.
So, thanks to a “packrat” in La Cañada and a man chasing a childhood memory, an authentic piece of California’s heritage has been saved.