In the closing days of 1999, fears of Y2K mounted. Doomsayers warned that when the date turned from Dec. 31, 1999, to Jan. 1, 2000, a programming bug would shut down computers across the globe. Preparations were made to protect the computers that operated the power grid, traffic lights, airports and other facets of our lives. It was predicted the havoc would affect even the microwaves and TVs in our homes.
No matter what eventually transpired, a group of Delta Museum supporters vowed to make some noise about the new century. They decided to ring the collection of bells in the museum courtyard at the stroke of midnight.
The tradition continues with the arrival of 2017, although the bell ringers have dropped in number as the original participants have aged.
One faithful participant is Chris Miller, who has made bell ringing a tradition with her two granddaughters, Kayla, 12, and Tatem, 10.
"My grandkids have grown up with those bells," Miller said.
The two girls were sleeping over one New Year's Eve and she decided ringing the bells would be a creative way of keeping them up until midnight. So after a nap, they headed over to the museum, a tradition that has continued over the years.
"They've each got a special bell picked out," Miller said. "We plan on being there again this year."
Museum director Jim Wetzel says the festivities are open to all. Folks gather at the museum at the corner of 3rd and Meeker at about 11:30 p.m. on New Year's Eve. There are usually some munchies and sparkling cider for folks as they wait inside the warm museum. As the minutes tick toward midnight, they head outside to the courtyard where the museum's collection of 10 bells are arrayed.
Eight of the 10 bells were donated to the museum in 1993 from the collection of Leslie J. Savage. His instructions were clear -- visitors young and old should be encouraged to ring the bells.
Savage was a longtime Delta County resident who moved with his family to a tent and log cabin south and east of Crawford in 1916. He was president of Crawford State Bank and kept books for E.W. Gates and Morrow Cattle Company.
Savage devoted his life to the people and land in Colorado. He loved Colorado so greatly that he stamped "Western Colorado has everything but you" on all of his mail. He had a strong belief that everyone should be of service to humanity and was particularly appreciative of the service of our nation's military.
Orval Cotten, a lifetime Crawford resident, recalls that any time a battle was won in World War II, Savage rang the bells. The bells sounded especially joyful as they signaled the end of the war.
Cotten said Savage also rang the bells in honor of Crawford boys who went into the service. If he looked out the window and spotted a young man in uniform passing by his bank office, he would come out on the street and give him a dime. Both Cotten and his brother received dimes. Even then, 10¢ wouldn't buy much, but they recognized it as a token of Savage's appreciation.
"He would always say, 'I'm certainly proud of you young people who will protect people like me.' "
Savage was nicknamed "The Father of Black Mesa Highway" due to the fact that he was instrumental in getting present day Highway 92 paved. The road was previously a dirt path and was impassable for much of the year. Savage, a major land owner in the Crawford area, also promoted the construction of the Paonia and Crawford reservoirs and encouraged the creation of the Black Canyon National Monument.
To display his largest bells, Savage constructed a 30-foot welded steel tower. Muriel Marshall, in a 1963 Delta County Independent article, noted that Savage's ranch south of Crawford was known as "Bell Tower Ranch," though he had named it The Normandy after the family plantation in Arkansas.
Marshall notes that Crawford residents could distinguish each bell by its sound.
The deepest, loudest ringing booms from the oldest bell, made of cast iron and weighing a thousand pounds. The 36-inch Cathedral Bell was cast in Liverpool, England, and shipped to Dublin, Ireland, where it was placed in a cathedral. It came into the possession of Leslie J. Savage's grandfather who brought it to the United States, first to Georgia, then to Alabama, and finally to Arkansas. Leslie J. Savage had it shipped to his Crawford ranch many years later. This bell is well over 100 years old.
The lightest bell came from a Denver & Rio Grande train engine that traveled over Marshall Pass to Gunnison on a regular run. It is made of brass.
"The Plantation Bell" came from the Normandy Plantation. It was used to call the workers in from the cotton fields at noon and at night. If it was heard at any other time of day it meant that either there was a fire or a child had been born.
The smallest of the Savage bell collection, the Pilot Bell was used by the pilot of a Mississippi River boat to signal the helmsman of the changing river depths. It only needed to be heard by one person, thus its small size.
The Upper Cattle Creek School Bell was installed in the Upper Cattle Creek Schoolhouse in Carbondale in 1886. It remained there until Leslie J. Savage purchased the bell for $150 at an auction in July 1966.
The next year, Savage purchased a Sears Roebuck bell that served as a farm dinner bell for over 60 years. It was purchased from Sears on Sept. 15, 1886, by Mr. and Mrs. William Walter of Murphysboro, Ill.
Two steamboat bells also came into Savage's possession. One comes from the Robert E. Lee steamboat built in 1866 in New Albany, Ind. In its class, the Robert E. Lee was one of the fastest and most luxurious steamboats of the time. In 1870, the Robert E. Lee won a race against the Natchez from New Orleans to St. Louis, Mo., a distance of over 1,100 miles. In September 1882, a fire disabled the Robert E. Lee and it never ran again. The bell was purchased by Savage in Arkansas, probably at an auction.
The other steamboat bell came from the Queen of the Yazoo River, which travelled the Yazoo River, Missouri and Ohio rivers for many years beginning in 1852.
Muriel Marshall notes that Savage's collection included many smaller bells, some so tiny their clappers were hardly larger than pinheads. He had the hand bell his school teacher, Miss Ida, rang to call children to classes in a school that is gone from a town that is gone.
The Central School Bell, not part of Savage's collection, also comes from a school that is gone. The bell was placed in the bell tower of the Central School in Delta about 1885. When the Lincoln School was built next to the Central School in 1908, it, too, had a bell tower/cupola but no bell was ever placed in it. "It has always been assumed that a second bell would have confused the children with the two schools so close," museum director Jim Wetzel said. In the museum courtyard, the Central Bell hangs from the Lincoln School cupola, removed from the Lincoln School prior to its demolition in 1985.
The 10th bell in the collection is known as the Pea Green School Bell. When the building was razed, the bell came into private ownership and was subsequently donated to the museum.
Chuck Farmer, a historian with the Hotchkiss-Crawford Historical Society, found a note in museum files about Leslie's daughter, Martha, who lived in the Savage house in Crawford when the school bells were still there. When schoolchildren came to ring the bells, Martha, a former Delta County school superintendent, would require them to first recite the opening lines of the poem "The Bells." The poem, written by Edgar Allen Poe in 1849, contains several lines that will resonate with the hardy souls who gather at the museum Saturday night to celebrate the hopes and years of a new year:
"Silver bells ... what a world of merriment their melody foretells! How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle, In the icy air of night!"
This article is based on information generously provided by Jim Wetzel, Delta County Historical Society; Orval Cotten and Susan Hansen, Crawford residents; and Chuck Farmer, Hotchkiss-Crawford Historical Society, who provided the dates for archived DCI stories.