The intriguing story of Iowa City’s first bell starts off very innocently.
First Presbyterian Church in Iowa City began as most churches do. A small group of people who want to worship God, doing it in a way that is consistent with their faith tradition, gather together in a common meeting place, and then, they call a like-minded pastor to join them, asking that man or woman to lead them as a congregation.
In 1840, in Iowa City, Iowa – that’s exactly what happened.
The little congregation, which officially formed on September 12, 1840, decided the first thing they needed to do was to secure a meeting place. Fortunately, one of the church’s founding couples was Chauncey and Dolly Swan, who opened the Swan Hotel (1841), located directly north of Capitol Square. If that name sounds familiar, it should. Chauncey, in 1838, was appointed by the Iowa Territorial Legislature, meeting in Burlington, to head up the three-man commission that selected the new site for the territorial capital in Johnson County.
Chauncey, and his wife Dolly, had become very influential in Iowa City, and with their support, the church was given a primary plot of land, located just one block north of his new hotel. Though construction on a building would not begin until 1843, the congregation proceeded to step two: calling a pastor to come lead them. Author Ruth Gallaher describes that man, Rev. Michael Hummer, this way…
Michael Hummer was born in 1802, son of Micheal and Martha (Evans) Hummer of Fayette County, Kentucky. At the age of eight (1810), Michael’s father died, leaving him and his older brother in the care of his mother, who suffered from severe trauma experienced as a child. In 1824, Hummer enrolled at Indiana College, where he signed an oath to renounce Christianity, becoming an atheist who focused exclusively on money-making. By 1825, he was soon converted back to Christ under the ministry of Rev. William L. Martyn, who opened a training school at Livonia, Indiana. A Presbyterian minister from Kentucky, Father Martyn, as he was called, was said to have “inspired his pupils with such an educational and missionary spirit, that perhaps no congregation in Indiana furnished more school teachers and more ministers than that congregation in Livonia.”
In 1830, Michael graduated from Indiana College and attended Princeton Theological Seminary, but apparently never received a degree. He became a licensed pastor in 1833, and over the next five years pastored several different churches throughout Indiana and Illinois. In 1834 in Indiana, he married Emmeline Booth who was born in 1810 in New York, daughter of Legrand Booth. By 1839, Hummer was teaching school and pastoring in Davenport, overseeing First Presbyterian for several months before moving to several Iowa communities to start new churches – Muscatine (Bloomington), Linn Grove, Round Prairie, Berlin, Tipton, and Scotch Grove Presbyterian in Jones County. It was at this time (1841) when Michael received the call from Iowa City to start a new Presbyterian work here in the territorial capital.
1841 – 1850 A New Church Community Puts Down Roots.
When Michael Hummer arrived in Iowa City in 1841, there was much work to be done. Like other men of the cloth, Hummer provided for his family by living quite humbly while serving several area start-up congregations at the same time. While the land to build a new church in Iowa City was donated, funding the construction was a different story. The building you see pictured above was the result of seven years of labor (1843-1850).
In 1843, the church’s corporate bishop assigned Hummer to not only pastor area churches, but also appointed him to travel back east with the goal of raising funds for a proposed seminary for the region.
It’s this fund-raising assignment and the improper way Hummer handled it, combined with an increasing amount of sermons that bordered on “strange doctrine” that finally got the good pastor into hot water with both the Presbytery and his Iowa City congregants. By 1848, when he refused an official church request for a financial accounting of his fund-raising efforts, Hummer was expelled after a stormy trial during which “he got furious, storming angry, and left the room in a rage, declaring the Presbytery to be ‘a den of ecclesiastical thieves.’”
While one contemporary once described Pastor Hummer as “the smartest preacher, if he was not the greatest saint,” it appears that some of his deep-seeded anger got the best of him here. Dismissed from Iowa City, Hummer picked up his belongings, some pulpit furniture, which included the church’s communion service, two bibles, a severance note for $650, and any other movable property he could find and shuffled off to greener pastures in Keokuk. Now, in most circumstances, this would be the end of the story. But for Rev. Hummer and the good folks at First Presbyterian in Iowa City, the most entertaining part of this tale was just about to begin.
Now, for the Bell-Ringing Part of Our Story.
During his fund-raising travels, Hummer was given a beautiful church bell, valued at $600, which he brought back to Iowa City, having it hung in the belfry of the new church building as it was under construction on Market Street. Most Iowa City historians agree that this bell was the first one ever to ring out on the streets of Iowa City. Soon, others would appear: The Mechanics Academy, followed by St. Mary’s Catholic Church, but suffice to say, this Troy Foundry bell, made in West Troy, New York, was pretty special to that first generation of Iowa Citians. So special, in fact, that this story from 1848 caused more buzz on the streets of Iowa City than just about anything else . . . short of the California Gold Rush!
Once again, Ruth Gallaher comments…
Trouble Brewing in Keokuk Spills Over in Iowa City.
Apparently, the longer Rev. Hummer fumed about his dismissal back in Iowa City, the more he came to believe that this $600 church bell hanging in the belfry at First Presbyterian really belonged to him. So, with the help of a former parishioner/church elder, Dr. James W. Margrave, who had followed Hummer to Keokuk, the good reverend decided to take action. In the late summer of 1848, traveling the 100 miles to Iowa City, Hummer climbed a ladder to the church belfry, unfastened the bell, and began slowly lowering it on a rope to the ground, while Margrave went off to the livery stable to rent an escape vehicle – a horse and wagon. Being the middle of the day, a crowd quickly surrounded the church. Several men, deciding to stop the robbery, simply removed Hummer’s ladder, trapping him in the dome-capped belfry. This, as should be expected, set Rev. Hummer “raving and scolding and gesticulating like a madman.”
As you might imagine, this commotion drew an even bigger crowd, and suddenly Iowa City was having “an incident,” worthy of one great news story. Apparently, as Hummer’s anger kicked into high gear, (he reportedly was hurling pieces of boards and loose bricks down on the observers), a handful of Iowa City parishioners brought their own horse and wagon, loaded the church bell on board, and escaped down Market Street, all before Margrave had returned!
Standing in the crowd that day was one 18-year-old budding cartoonist – George H. Yewell, one of Iowa City’s finest who went on to become one of the better known artists of his time. His cartoon, The Outbreak: Chronicles of the Bell eventually appeared in the local Iowa City newspaper, calling great attention to this ridiculous moment in Iowa City church history.
Ah, Hummer’s Bell – The Sing-Along-Song.
As the story goes, people all over the Territory of Iowa were talking for months about the Hummer’s Bell incident. Apparently, one fine evening, while gathered in the tavern over at Chauncey Swan’s hotel, Iowa City lawyers, John P. Cook and William H. Tuthill, possibly under the slight influence of some dark ale, penned a parody song, “Ah, Hummer’s Bell,” set to the tune “Those Evening Bells,” written by Thomas Moore and John Anderson Stevenson (1818). Had YouTube or Facebook been available in the day, I’m certain the song would have gone viral, but in 1848, it found enough likes to be remembered when the Hummer’s Bell story was retold in the May 1922 edition of The Palimpsest Magazine. Allow me, here, to share the Cook & Tuthill lyrics with you;
So…whatever happened to Rev. Hummer?
Rev. Michael Hummer, along with his sidekick, Dr. Margrave, went back to Keokuk, bell-less. The church they founded there apparently not only remained without a bell, but according to most theologians, the congregation got a few bats in their belfry as well. The group was eventually kicked out of the Presbyterian Church, changed its name to New Lights, and evolved into a cult-like community with Dr. Margrave’s sister, Mary, becoming the spiritual medium for the group.
In 1850, Hummer was still at it, filing a legal suit against the church in Iowa City over the debts he believed they still owed him. According to historical records, some type of settlement was finally arrived at in 1853. Back in Keokuk, Hummer and the church’s in-house prophet, Mary Margrave, were convicted (1851-1852) for adultery, with the 1850 census indicating that the entire Hummer family and Margrave were living together at the time.
Things got worse in the coming years. When living in Ft. Madison, Hummer was arrested for an attempt to murder his wife by suffocation, under the pretense of driving the devil out of her. She was rescued from his hands by neighbors. Apparently, Mrs. Hummer was reportedly having an intimate relationship with a Mr. William J. Cochran, whom she eventually married, moving back to Indiana in the mid-1850’s.
By 1855, Hummer had moved on to Kansas, where his life took way too many twists and turns to mention here. He died on September 9, 1884 in Wyandotte, Kansas, and is buried in Oak Grove Cemetery. A good friend of his, J. M. D. Powell, who worked alongside him during his Iowa years, wrote this about this interesting man of God…
“(Michael Hummer) was a very talented man and was considered, for years, the ablest clergyman in the state; but he was very peculiar. He possessed a high temper and did not hesitate to show it if occasion required…I was well acquainted with Mr. Hummer when he lived in Davenport and always had a great deal of charity for him, as I always thought him non compos mentis. When he left Iowa City he moved to Keokuk and, after creating a great deal of excitement in propagating his views on spiritualism, which he embraced in his latter days, he became so unpopular that he went to Missouri, not far from Kansas City, since which time I have lost track of him but have been told he is dead.”
So…whatever happened to the Presbyterians in Iowa City?
As we mentioned earlier, the first church that took seven years to build (1843-1850), stood only six years before being completely destroyed by fire in 1856. A new church building (see picture above) was planned, but it took nine years to complete it (1856-1865), with cataclysmic events (i.e. twin disasters of a national financial panic and the loss of the Iowa capital to Des Moines in 1857, followed by the 1861-65 Civil War) slowing down the construction process.
Once completed in 1865, the church became of the home of First Presbyterian/Iowa City until a new building was built in 1975 on the east side of Iowa City, leaving Old Brick as one of Iowa City’s oldest remaining structures. As for the wind-altered appearance of Old Brick, in his 1975 book on local architecture titled “American Classic” University of Iowa history professor Laurence Lafore writes:
“While it is not a major work of art it must be judged an imposing and beautiful example of the attempt to achieve, by using Romanesque details, the characteristic Romanesque atmosphere of slightly gloomy, fortress-like solidity in a simple and practical church building.”
So…whatever happened to the infamous Hummer’s Bell?
When last we mentioned the Iowa City Bell, it was being taken away from the church property by a group of men who loaded it onto a horse and wagon so it could be “safely stored away” until the “Hummer Bell incident” was over. According to tradition, Ely Myers, one of Johnson County’s earliest residents (moving his family here from Elkhart, Indiana in 1836) was one of those men seen toting the bell off the property. One man later reported that the men had securely tied the bell to an old oak tree, allowing it to sink down into the sandy shore of the Iowa River “near the mouth of Rapid Creek” for safe keeping.
Hmm. Curious minds want to know. Where the hell is the bell?
Historian Ruth Gallaher gives us a clue…
As the story goes, some 15 months later, the bell was brought out of its watery grave and carried off by two California gold seekers, being sold for cash in Salt Lake City to a group of Mormons. It’s a fact that Chauncey Swan was one of those Iowa Citians who was struck with Gold Fever, and in 1849, led a large group westward to find their treasures in California. The Iowa City Argonauts (or the Sacramento Mining Company), as they were known, did travel through Utah, so indeed, this part of the bell story is, most likely, true.
In 1868, responding to an inquiry from Iowa City, Mormon leader Brigham Young wrote that, indeed, the bell was in Salt Lake City and available for the price of shipping. But apparently, the local parishioners had too many other expenses on their plate at the time, and after settling things with Hummer (1853), the matter was dropped.
Sadly, since then, nothing has ever turned up on the where-abouts of the infamous Hummer’s Bell.
And that, my friends, is the final ding-dong on this story.
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.