News

For whom the bell tolls

By MARCIE MILLER

Staff reporter

Does the original San de Fuca schoolhouse bell rest at the bottom of Penn Cove, or is it pealing for Sunday services in a church on the island?

When Joe Keeva and Sally Hayton-Keeva of Coupeville worked last summer to restore the old schoolhouse, they heard several versions of what could have happened to the bell, which has been missing for 70 years. One of the most believable was a purported first-hand account of the heist, from one of the then-young men who stole it.

Bernie Hingston, 86, said he was one of the four teenagers involved in the 1933 Halloween prank.

He doesn’t remember who did what, but he recalls they loaded the bell into his Model A Ford pickup and drove it over to Coupeville. There they propped it against the door of Whiteside Pharmacy. Hingston said the youths returned the next morning at 9 a.m., hoping to see the pharmacist struggling to open his door, with the large bronze bell wedged against it.

Instead, the bell was gone.

“It’s bothered me ever since,” Hingston said. “I feel guilty, it ended up different than we planned.”

Hingston, who lives in Oak Harbor, said he has discussed the incident many times over the years, hoping to find someone who knows the whereabouts of the missing bell. He has had several leads, but none of them have panned out.

His parents owned Hingston General Store in San de Fuca, now the site of Penn Cove Pottery. He attended the San de Fuca school until 6th grade, and graduated from Coupeville High School in 1935.

He went on to be an Air Force pilot, real estate agent and business owner, but he never forgot the missing school bell.

“I would very much like to see it recovered,” he said. “I would be willing to contribute liberally to its return.”

Hingston recalls he later sold his Model A to Earl Darst, who said he was also one of the pranksters involved in the bell heist. Darst, now 84, said another of the bell gang lives in Oak Harbor, and a fourth accomplice lives in Anchorage, Alaska.

The bell had been silent for some time, as the schoolhouse was no longer in use, so the prank seemed harmless.

It was Darst’s job to lower the bell from the schoolhouse belfry in the dark of night. From there, his story differs slightly from Hingston’s. He said the teens then hauled the bell to Coupeville, where they set it up on sawhorses in the middle of Main street. They rang the bell, ran off and haven’t seen it since.

One thing they both agree on, the bell did go missing.

“I don’t know where it went,” Darst said.

Darst hasn’t given the wherabouts of the bell much thought in the last 70 years, until the Keevas started remodeling the old schoolhouse.

“I don’t feel guilty, someone got a good schoolhouse bell.”

Darst was born in San de Fuca and is a fourth generation bulb grower. He owns Darst Bulb Farm and still lives on Penn Cove, almost in view of the schoolhouse.

He attended school at the San de Fuca schoolhouse until it was closed in 1933.

His wife Lee calls him “The Pillar of San de Fuca.”

When the Keevas held an open house at the school last summer, they heard a different bell story, or perhaps a continuation. A man told them he knew where the bell was — in the “Little Brown Church” on Maxwelton Road in Langley. In the hub-bub of the open house, Hayton-Keeva regrets that she forgot the man’s name, and has not heard from him since.

Hayton-Keeva said she went to the church, now the Maxwelton Christian Fellowship church, and saw a bell in the belfry that she believed to be similar to the one missing from the school.

“It looks like it could have been a school bell,” she said.

Hayton-Keeva spoke briefly with the church’s pastor, the Rev. Neil Jolin, who said the current bell had been in the church’s belfry for years. He declined to discuss the matter with her further.

A call to Jolin from the Whidbey News-Times also resulted in a short conversation.

“I don’t know anything about it, and I’m pretty busy right now,” was his only comment.

If anyone has seen it, the missing bell looks very similar to the one that now hangs in the schoolhouse belfry. That bell came from the old Coupeville Elementary, and is on loan from the Island County Museum.

“At least it’s a bell from the area,” Hayton-Keeva said.

How it was taken or who has it is not important to the Keevas. They just want the original bell returned to its home in the schoolhouse overlooking Penn Cove.

“We’re working so hard to have it restored,” she said. “The bell should be returned to San de Fuca.”

You can reach News-Times reporter Marcie Miller at mmiller@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611

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