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School bell tower goes up

JACKSONVILLE — From 90-year-old Lee Harter to 5-year-old Ian Grady, more than 100 visitors watched as a 57-foot-tall, 17,000-pound bell tower superstructure was raised from the ground, lifted above the historic three-story Jacksonville School building, then carefully lowered into place.

"It's cool," said Grady, there with his classmates from the Kids of the Kingdom Preschool. Decked out in hard hats, all 11 students cheered wildly as a crane began to lift the structure that will restore a bell tower that's been absent for 49 years.

Grady's classroom is adjacent to the historic building, where Harter taught for nine years when the tower and bell were still in place during the 1950s. "This is a real special day for Jacksonville," said Harter.

A new bell tower is just one of the renovations Brooke and Mel Ashland are undertaking for the historic building. The couple purchased the school campus from Cascade Christian High School last year. The original tower was torn down in 1959 because it had deteriorated. When renovations are finished, the building will house the Ashlands' businesses, a restaurant and community activities.

"Architecturally, the building needs its face complete," said Brooke Ashland.

Cook Crane Co. owner Rick Crane was pleased with the outcome. "It went well," he said. "There were no biggies."

Lifting began about 11:45 a.m. An hour later, the structure was resting on concrete support pads ready to be welded and bolted into place. The structure's four legs were dropped through a large opening in the roof and smaller holes cut on three floors.

"We double-checked it eight times. We're pretty sure it will fit," said Rich Brown of Hartsook Construction. Lasers were used to make certain everything aligned. The superstructure hung up briefly at one point, but a small drop by the crane freed it. Later in the day the prefabricated bell tower roof was lifted into place.

The superstructure was assembled on site by welder Gary West. Outside assembly and lifting were more practical than a piece-by-piece job inside the building, which would have involved extensive welding near old wood, a fire hazard.

Ciota Engineering associate Cameron Harris was on site sending pictures back to Barb Ciota in Ashland, who engineered the superstructure.

"There was something not quite right about (the building's) architecture," said Clara Wendt, who taught at the school from 1950 to 1959 and witnessed the installation. "The bell tower was supposed to be there."

The elementary school's principal rang the bell every school day because the rope came into his office on a lower floor, said Wendt. It was rung at 10 minutes before 8 a.m.

Whether the original bell will be installed remains uncertain. It is the property of the Medford School District and is located on a pedestal at nearby Jacksonville Elementary School. The Ashlands will ask the school board to return the bell so it can reside in its original location. But district officials have said it has historical context at its new site. If the bell is not returned, the Ashlands will purchase another.

Exterior siding will enclose the tower even though it would be easier to install a bell, yoke and other hardware first.

"We'll worry about that when we come to it," said Mel Ashland.

Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at tboom8929@charter.net.

Hilary Ekemmling, right, reacts as the frame to a new bell tower is raised at the historic Jacksonville School Thursday. - Jamie Lusch