Mt. Morris is the home to the Official Illinois Freedom Bell. The bell and its tower are the focal point of the Village’s downtown square area that is referred to by locals as “the campus”. The buildings and grounds of the campus in Mt. Morris were erected by the Rock River Seminary (Later Mt. Morris College). The Seminary was the first institute of higher learning in Northern Illinois. The Seminary was a Methodist institution that was formed on the virgin prairie in 1839, some 9 years before Mt. Morris was incorporated. The oldest College building still standing is the “Old Sandstone” which was built in 1853.
The original “little” bell can be found in the Northeast corner of the campus mounted atop a pole behind the American Legions Post 143’s memorial fountain. The memorial was erected in 1926 as a WWI memorial. It is comprised of stones donated by prominent families and organizations from across the country. The Village’s July 4th committee purchased the original bell in 1963 with $75.00 donated by the local VFW Post. The original little bell measures just 16 inches in diameter. On April 30th 1963 local dignitaries along with actor Ronald Reagan (later the 40th US President) dedicated the bell. Reagan was in Illinois visiting his hometown of Dixon at the time. Reagan was rumored to frequent Mt. Morris in his college years and played football against Mt. Morris College with his college alma mater Eureka College. During the dedication Reagan borrowed an overcoat from Mt. Morris Resident Charles Finch on that cold April day, the famous coat is on display in the Mt. Morris Historical Museum to this day.
On July 4th, 1963, after much promoting by local man Sandy Sandstrom, 20 states participated by ringing bells 13 times at 2:00 P.M. E.D.S.T., in unison with the Liberty Bell of Independence Hall, Philadelphia and the Freedom Bell in Mt. Morris.
The next year, 1964, the ringing of the little Freedom Bell was broadcast over the loud speakers in the Illinois Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair. Soon the little bell made bell ringing on July 4th a tradition again, with more states and cities recognizing and participating in the event, all ringing 13 times in honor of the 13 colonies and 13 stars and stripes in Old Glory.
In 1965, William Wrigley, then owner of the Chicago Cubs, agreed to broadcast the sound of the little Freedom Bell over the sound system at Wrigley Field before the baseball game on July 4th. Voice of the Cubs on WGN television Jack Brickhouse arranged for the bell ringing to be heard over WGN, allowing millions of people to be involved.
The large bell has quite the colorful history of fire & ice. It was cast in the U.S. in the early 1860’s as a replica of the Liberty Bell (minus the crack). Its first location was in a belfry of a church on the shores of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. A fire destroyed the church sometime in the early 20’s, but the bell was undamaged. Church members decided to relocate the church on the opposite shore of Lake Geneva. During winter, when the lake was frozen, a group of men attempted to drag the bell across the ice. The weight of the bell cracked the ice, the bell sank to the bottom of the lake and remained submerged for over forty years. A wealthy resident of Lake Geneva located the bell, raised it, and planned to make it a focal point of his elaborate house he was building. The bell ended up not working in his design and was sold to a local farmer. In 1966 an article published about this bell-generated interest within the Mt. Morris Community. A dozen members of the Mt. Morris July 4th Committee traveled to the Lake Geneva area to investigate. With the financial assistance of the Mt. Morris VFW post again, along with donations from local residents, the bell was purchased for $500.
The bell weighs 1,500 pounds, and is 4 feet high and 4 feet wide. The bell is silver in color and is cast from bell metal. The large bell was cleaned and sandblasted by E. D. Etnyre & Company, Oregon, IL. Mt. Morris resident and artist Erick Mann designed the iconic tower. Volunteers and local tradesman Marv Miller, “Babe” Tracy and Gene McGee erected the tower. Howard Fox, Senior Forester for Sinnissippi Forest in Oregon fabricated the yoke from slippery elm. The same material and dimensions from which the yoke of the Liberty Bell is made.
In the fall of 1971 the large Freedom Bell was proclaimed the official Freedom Bell for the state of Illinois by an act of the Illinois legislature. On July 4th, 1971, Governor Richard Ogilvie was the speaker for the bell ringing ceremony. He presented the Village a state flag and a bronze plaque for the Freedom Bell site. The plaque contained the following inscription:
“Let Freedom Ring on this occasion of the first official ringing of the Freedom Bell at Mt. Morris, let this message be heard by all Americans: Let us be one nation dedicated as never before to the realization of the promise of freedom for all.”
Richard B. Ogilvie
Governor of Illinois
1976 the bell was rung in conjunction with the Nations Bicentennial Celebration. Throughout the 1981 Iran hostage crisis the bell was rang 52 times daily, once for each remaining hostage. The Bell was also rung on July 3rd 1986 to help commemorate the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty and the re¬lighting of her torch. The bell is still rung every July 4th at 2:00 P.M. E.D.S.T in conjunction with the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. The bell has been rung and broadcast all across the nation for various national and local events.
In 1984 the Mt. Morris Freedom Bell was rung live on the television show “Good Morning America”. Bell ringers included the Let Freedom Ring Committee, the Mt. Morris Mayor, Let Freedom Ring queen and others. The bell ringers shouted in unison: “This is Mt. Morris Illinois, home of the Illinois Freedom Bell. Good Morning America!”