Representatives of the Verendrye Museum Board of Directors, along with many Fort Pierre and Stanley County residents and representatives of the Fort Pierre Development Corporation, unveiled a historic bell in Fort Pierre on July 4.
The bell was previously a fixture of the Orton Country School in Mission Ridge, a rural public schoolhouse in which many older residents of Stanley County — including the famous Casey Tibbs — received their primary education.
The Orton School operated between 1925 and 2015, when a lack of students forced it to officially close.
The bell itself remained on the school building until October of 2018, when it was taken down and sold to the Verendrye Museum by the Stanley County School Board for one dollar, former Orton teacher Phyllis Fravel said.
“The bells were very important to the country schools; I went to one myself,” Sunny Hannum, who serves as a secretary for the Fort Pierre Tourism Board, said. “When that bell rang, you knew you better be headed for your desk… they carried for miles.”
The bell unveiling took place directly after the Fort Pierre Independence Day parade, and involved a small ceremony. Some time prior to the ceremony, the heavy cast-iron bell was installed on a seven-foot-tall steel fixture with a concrete base, made by local residents Brian Scott and Darby Nutter.
While the July 4 parade was still ongoing, the large fixture was placed in front of the Sansarc Schoolhouse, another country school which was moved to Fort Pierre for historical preservation. Sansarc operated between 1910 and 1969. A number of former teachers and students of the local country schools elaborated on the schools’ histories, and told stories about their memories of rural education.
“As a kid growing up there, we kind of took the bell for granted. We thought — I thought, anyway — that everyone had bells,” Darla Tibbs said. Tibbs had been a student and teacher at Orton School, and fondly remembered the time when — as a teacher — a rattlesnake had squatted in the school’s heat vents.
“That whole week we were listening to that snake whenever we’d go in and out the door for recess,” she said. “Every now and then we’d just go over there and stomp on the floor and make sure he was still there, because I said I was a lot more comfortable knowing where he was than where he wasn’t.”
After the stories ended and the bell was finally unveiled, it was Verendrye Museum Board of Directors member Zay Norman who had the honor of giving it its first ring.
“I want everyone to just listen to it; let it ring,” Norman said. “It’s like a prayer, in a way.”