Former Gresham fire captain locates a piece of department's lost history
by: Jim Clark Retired Gresham Fire Capt. Jim Foreman doggedly searched for the old 1906 fire department bell and finally found it in the garage of Liz and Ray Jones, who were storing it for the historical society.

During his nearly 17 years of retirement from Gresham Fire and Emergency Services, Jim Foreman has visited his former co-workers at Station 71 in Gresham City Hall countless times.

Just like during his old working days, he'd go in through the engine bays out back, never using the main entrance.

But a year ago, while celebrating a friend's retirement, Jim made his way toward the front of the station and noticed something missing.

A big something.

The 400-plus-pound bronze bell that used to be mounted to a wall was gone.

'Where's the fire bell?' Jim asked.

Battalion Chief Mark Maunder, who used to work with Jim back in the early 1990s, scratched his head in wonder.

Not only did the battalion chief have no idea where the bell was, he hadn't even noticed it was gone.

A piece of history

Shortly after the city of Gresham incorporated in 1904, city leaders met to see about a place to build a fire station and hang a fire bell to summon volunteer firefighters.

They built a combination town hall/fire station on Northeast Roberts Avenue just north of Powell Boulevard. And on March 31, 1906, they hung a fire bell in a belfry on top of Town Hall. A series of three taps denoted a general alarm - or an invitation to all male citizens of the town older than age 15 'to cooperate,' according to a fire department history written by B. Harry Johnson.

In the 1950s, when a new City Hall was built farther west on Powell, the bell moved with it.

Jim, a Gresham native who became a volunteer firefighter in 1965 and then a professional firefighter in 1967, remembers the bell. In fact, he even built a rugged frame to support it when the city manager decided it should be hung in front of City Hall.

Later, in the 1970s, the city's third City Hall was built in the 1300 block of Northwest Eastman Parkway in what is now Gresham City Hall's public safety building. The bell moved to the interior of Station 71, where it was mounted onto a concrete wall.

That's where it sat when Jim retired as a captain in 1994.

Lost bell

But last year, while walking through the station for a friend's retirement ceremony, all that remained of the bell were holes in the wall where it was mounted.

Jim asked around. He talked to former fire chiefs, firefighters, city employees - everyone he could think of. Nobody knew what happened to the bell.

He kept digging, hoping the building's history would give him a clue. It turns out that during a major remodel of the fire station in the mid- to late 1990s, the bell was removed.

'It got kind of fuzzy where it went,' Jim said.

Perhaps a contractor who worked on the remodel had it. Or lost it. Or melted it down for a profit.

Jim feared it was gone for good.

'That we were never going to see it again,' he said.

So he put the word out on the street. He asked the old timers who meet weekly at Jazzy Bagels if anyone knew about the missing bell. He wandered into the Gresham Historical Society looking for tips.

No luck.

'I was about at my wits end,' he said. 'I was considering appealing to the City Council for help finding this piece of Gresham history.'

Instead, it found him.

Volunteer grapevine

Last month, while at the Rockin' Round the Block Car Show in Gresham, he ran into retired school administrator Bonnie Jepsen. Bonnie, a longtime volunteer for the Gresham Historical Society, didn't know anything about a fire bell. But she mentioned it to Betty Chisum, who mentioned it to her sister, Liz Jones.

Jones knew Jim from the Gresham Elks Lodge and approached him the following Tuesday during its next meeting.

'So Jim, I understand you're looking for a bell,' she said.

With that, she told him about the 'church bell' she and her husband Ray had in their garage.

It was supposed to be moved to the Baptist church over by Main City Park. The historical society, where Liz and Ray volunteer, had acquired the bell and planned to hang it at the church when the historical society relocated from the old Carnegie Library to the church.

But those dreams went up in flames when an arsonist burned the church down.

So the bell, which Liz assumed originally belonged to the church, remained in her garage.

'Well, I don't know anything about that, but I'm looking for the old fire department bell,' Jim told her.

Rediscovering the bell

The following Monday, just a few weeks ago, he stopped by her house on the corner of Northeast Fourth Street and Linden Avenue - just a block and a half away from where Jim grew up.

There in the dark corner of the garage - behind her son's motorcycle and below the rain boots and ice chests - sat the bell swaddled in blankets. As she lifted the blankets, exposing only the bottom third, Jim immediately recognized the bell as being the original fire bell.

'You don't need to lift it any further, that's the bell,' Jim said.

Well, Liz said, four firefighters did bring it over on a trailer when she agreed to store it. If it was the department's original fire bell, that could explain why firefighters helped move it, she said.

'Oh, and there's a frame that goes with it,' Liz added, pointing out a piece of wood leaning against the garage door.

Jim peeked behind it and saw the frame he'd made for the original fire bell so many years ago.

Evoking memories

Still, to learn that the bell she's been storing for about 15 years was the fire department's shocked her just a bit.

'Boy, that brings back memories, holy Moses,' she said.

As a girl, she remembers driving by the bell on the original City Hall building when her family brought berries from their farm to sell at the Scenic Fruit Company.

Her husband, Ray, remembers hearing it ringing on Regner Road where he grew up. Did he ever have to jump to it and scrambled to help put out a fire?

'No, I was only 9,' he said.

Word that Jim had at last found the bell spread through the fire department like wildfire.

'He sleuthed it out,' said Deputy Chief Jim Klum. 'It is a big part of the city's history.'

'The fire department appreciates the heck out of Jim's efforts,' Battalion Chief Mark Maunder said.

'Oh, it just happened,' Jim said, shrugging off any credit.

'Well, it just happened because you put the effort into it,' Mark replied. 'I would have given up a long time ago. But he was a rabid dog about it.'

Now, the department - with input from Jim - is talking about displaying the bell in front of Station 71.

Liz thinks that's a perfect place for it.

'It's where it should be - at the fire department,' she said. 'It's their history. I am very glad it was found.

'And very glad it is out of our garage.'

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