Thursday and Friday were red letter days for Denison High School and the Denison Alumni Association. First there was homecoming with a parade and induction of outstanding alumni and teachers into the Alumni Hall of Fame. Then on Friday morning the historic school bell, the last remnant of the clock atop the former high school on Main Street, found a permanent home.
Quoting from the book that Mavis Ann Bryant and I wrote shortly after the old school was demolished in 2007, “Two Schools on Main Street, the Pride of Denison, Texas, 1873-2007,” “almost since the beginning of Denison, a tower atop a school in the 700 block of West Main Street has stood as a symbol of the town itself.”
Then years later when the then new Denison High School opened in 1914, the bell worked in tandem with a new “town clock” donated by Roderick Mermott Beirne. Both were housed in a tower that became a familiar landmark for almost 100 years.
When the clock tower was lifted from the remains of the building in 2007, a crowd gathered outside the chain link fence to watch it gracefully rise from its pedestal and be lowered to a flatbed truck. It rested on the northwest corner of the block until the wooden tower began deteriorating further and was dismantled. The bell and works of the clock were to be stored for possible future use.
The time came for the bell to be refinished and placed in an appropriate brick display area in front of the new Denison High School on Highway 91 where students and visitors can see it every day. A large plaque in front of the bell tells the story of how it became a symbol of Denison for all those years.
In its earliest days, not everyone had clocks because there were no electric clocks, so pocket watches and a few ladies watches were about all that they had. So many residents depended on the clock to get to school, work or wherever they needed to go.
It wasn’t long after Denison’s first free graded public school opened on Oct. 12, 1874 that the people of the town decided that something was missing. They needed a school bell to make the new school complete. Students began collecting money from private sources and events were held to raise money to buy a bell to go in the school tower.
According to an article in the Denison Daily News on Dec. 17, 1874, the students reached their goal and a very large bell was installed in the tower of the Denison Union Seminary four days later.
The article called the bell “by far the largest in the city, weighing 1,480 pounds and measuring 31 inches across the mouth. Its brazen voice will be heard for miles around.” It was estimated that its sound might grate harshly on the ears of “envious Shermanites.”
Then when the new high school building opened in 1914 the bell was transferred to the tower of the new school as part of a gigantic clock that was placed there. The historic bell was attached to ring the time of day and night from what remained the highest point in town.
The bell’s clapper is said to have come from the original bell on the First Presbyterian Church that was received in January 1876 to call the citizens to worship at the church there, according to an unidentified clipping dated Feb. 2, 1876.
Beirne was 18 years old when he immigrated from Ireland and came to Denison to help open a dry-goods store that he later privately owned. He retired in about 1908 and in 1913 he wanted to contribute to the magnificent new school being built on the street where he had prospered. Friends convinced him that since Denison could not have a traditional courthouse clock because Sherman was the county seat, he purchased — at a cost of between $2,000 and $3,000 — a community timepiece as a gift to the school.
The City Council and school board in a joint meeting on Dec. 31, 1913 voted to make changes in the design of the tower to accommodate the clock and to thank Beirne for his generous contribution. Beirne died in 1928 soon after the first addition to the 1914 DHS was completed.
In November 2007, his great-grandnephew John O’Beirne of Yorktown Heights, New York, provided additional information about the clock after reading on the internet that the school was being demolished and that his relative had donated the clock.
The 1874 bell from atop the Educational Institute remained the heart of the mechanism and hourly tolled the time to endear it to so many residents, particularly the older ones. Families were able to regulate their daily lives by the familiar striking of the heirloom clock. The clapper became the gong for the clock that Beirne provided for the new school.
By 1997, the school that had become McDaniel Junior High School and had been closed for more than 10 years. The clock had fallen into disrepair as much as the school building itself.
The cry “Save the historic clock and bell” went up and not only from oldsters who remembered hearing the gigantic clock tell the time of day and night, but newcomers who realized that it might become the only visible remnant of the earliest days of Denison history.
So in 2007, as the walls of the old school began falling to the ground, public pressure to save the clock and bell intensified. After five months of watching the school disintegrate, brick by brick, the time came for the clock tower to be either demolished or saved.
Fortunately for resident, the city of Denison purchased the tower and clock from the demolition owners for $38,000 and on Oct. 10, 2007, under the watchful eyes of hundreds of citizens including this writer, a giant crane lifted the trussed tower and remaining portion of the clock onto a large flatbed truck. It was then moved to its temporary location on the northwest corner of the block. You know the rest of the story. Today the bell once more has a permanent home.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.