There are a great many famous bells in history. For example, Hemmingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, a great novel which derives its title from English poet John Donne’s passage in “Meditation XVII of Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions.” There is our own American Liberty Bell, crack and all. And cinematically there is the 1945 classic “The Bells of St. Mary’s” starring that legendary crooner Bing Crosby as Father Chuck O’Malley and the beautiful Ingrid Bergman as Sister Mary Benedict.
So you see there are bells aplenty in our history but this is an archive piece on Fort Lee and the bell in question was lost and is know found. There was a classic film shot on the streets of New York City in 1948, “The Naked City.” The narrator at the end of the film and the subsequent TV series of the same name would voice these words – “There are eight million stories in the naked city; this has been one of them.” Well, to paraphrase that oft quoted phrase – “There are four public schools in Fort Lee and this story is about one of them.”
Our tale starts on a cold March day as a Fort Lee decades old Main Street institution, Fort Lee Hardware, or as we locals liked to call it “Holtje’s Hardware” was closing its doors forever. Harry Holtje, the late great founder of this Fort Lee landmark, left behind two sons who carried on his tradition for many years, Terry and Bruce Holtje. They both retired and sold the store earlier in the year and by March they were cleaning out the warehouse and the basement. During the clean out, I received a call to come over to the store as they had items to donate to the Fort Lee Museum. Knowing that there must be some treasures buried in that hardware store basement, I pointed my truck east on Main Street and headed for the store. As I entered through the front door I made my way through the near empty store and headed to the basement where voices beckoned. Terry greeted me and pointed out the treasure he hinted at over the phone. Among the wonderful pieces the Holtje family donated to the Fort Lee Museum / Fort Lee Historical Society was a school bell! Terry said this was the bell from the original Fort Lee Public School Number 2 on Jones Road and it had been in their possession since the old school came down and was replaced with the more modern present day School Number 2 on Jones Road.
According to a report compiled by then Fort Lee Schools District Clerk John C. Abbott Jr. (son of our first Mayor) circa June 1930, School Number 2 dates to July 24, 1895 when bids for its construction were received. The school would be erected in West Fort Lee on Jones Road. The original school was a one-story frame building and years later it was raised up and two rooms erected underneath it. The front upper story as of 1930 was comprised of the original two rooms. In 1911 the four rooms on the west were added. The original piece of property was purchased on August 10, 1895 for $900. On June 30th, 1899 the Board purchased a large tract in the rear of the then present property at a cost of $3,000. On August 31, 1922 the Board purchased the large field south of the school property for $4,450. The State Highway (Route 46) divided the school property leaving only a small piece for school purposes. On October 9, 1931 the people voted to purchase a site off Main Street just west of Linwood Avenue. The bonds were offered for sale but no bid was received.
This leads us back to the bell. The bell was part of the original schoolhouse and continued to be a part of School Number 2 in the additions to the original building. The present day modern School Number 2 building dates to the early 1970s and when the old structure was demolished the bell eventually made its way down Main Street were it stayed these many years.
This lost and now found piece of local history will allow the present day Fort Lee school administrators, teachers, students and Fort Lee Board of Education members to understand the story of those that have gone before us and the work they accomplished over a century ago to secure public school buildings in Fort Lee for not only their generation but all future generations of students in Fort Lee. The Fort Lee Historical Society will work closely with the administration of School Number 2 and the teachers and students to eventually have this piece of their history properly displayed in the school building along with historic photos of the school from our archive. So let this 19th century bell return to West Fort Lee as its memories of the past toll in the minds of the 21st century inhabitants of Fort Lee.