A piece of a mission bell — missing for 86 years — was recently found thanks to a collaboration between several members of Cal State Fullerton’s Center for Oral and Public History (COPH). The artifact was ultimately found using a combination of COPH’s own oral records and veritable detective work from the staff at large.
The artifact was part of a set of two bells that had been missing from Santa Ysabel Asistencia, a sub-mission of Mission Basilica San Diego Alcala, since 1926. The top of one of the bells, along with the clappers, are the only other pieces that have ever been recovered.
“Many years ago, a collection of oral history recordings were conducted by Helen Smith … in the 1960s and early 1970s with mostly Orange County residents who had interesting stories to tell about the area and its history,” said Stephanie George, archivist at COPH. “After Smith’s death, they were donated by her daughter, first to CSUF’s archaeology (center).”
George said the recordings were eventually transferred to COPH.
The set included entries from Orange County historical figures such as Nellie Gail Moulton, Joseph Sepulveda, John Romero, Ray Serrano and Elise Lester. However, due to budget constraints, there was not much COPH could do with these records.
“Without funds to pay for transcribing and editing and printing, the box (of recordings) was left untouched,” said Kathleen Frazee, administrative support coordinator at COPH.
It was not until 2010 that, while converting the collection to the digital archive, a recording listed as “Anonymous” was finally heard. The narrator recounted a tale of how his father came upon the piece of the mission bell by way of a man referred to as “Fig Tree John” just a few months after their alleged theft from Santa Ysabel Asistencia.
According to the narrator, the piece was just one of many metal scraps taken in for testing by his father. The historical significance of the other recordings in the Smith collection prompted COPH to seek funding for a full transcription. The anonymous account, which was pitched to the Orange County Pioneer Council by Frazee, helped solidify that support.
“During the interview, there was reference to a piece of the bell that was right there,” Frazee said. “I imagined the sounds of the metal in the gunny sack that was brought for testing and thought it would be fun to duplicate the sound for a presentation to the council.”
In 2011, with the documents being transcribed, Frazee attempted to track down this enigmatic piece of the Santa Ysabel Mission bell.
“Despite the anonymous narrator, there were still enough elements that one might be able to figure out names, some locations,” George said. “Kathy took it a step further by making some phone calls, which eventually produced the piece of the alleged missing bell.”
The physical artifact was obtained in April. Frazee said the intent is to return the missing piece to Santa Ysabel. Though the sub-mission is now happily accepting the donation, its representatives were originally more than a little skeptical of the artifact’s authenticity.
“I was apparently not the first to contact them,” Frazee said. “I was told, ‘If I really had a bell for every time someone called about them, my office would be filled with bells.’”
Currently, the Center for Oral and Public History is home to some 5,000 oral histories and 3,000 historical photographs. Natalie Fousekis, COPH director, said though the case of the mission bell is unique, there is always a potential of uncovering something special in its enormous volume.
“Oral histories, like those preserved at COPH, shed light on a part of history that often doesn’t make it into the historical record,” said Fousekis. “While finding a historical artifact like a piece of the mission bell is rare, the 5,000 interviews in our collection reveal many lesser-known stories in Southern California’s history.”
And of course, while each mystery recovered is an exciting experience for the COPH staff, they would be unveiled if not for their hard work and initiative.
“I think we all contributed in a way that allowed the next piece of the puzzle to fit seamlessly,” George said. “These types of experiences don’t happen all the time but, when they do, it’s nearly magical.”