Hines Column: Tracing the 100-year legend of the stolen, lost and rediscovered CyHawk "victory bell"

Travis Hines Sports Editor
A photo of Unity Hall - formerly a Universalist church - at the University of Iowa where the "victory bell" was allegedly stashed and later found. Photo courtesy of Samuel Calvin Collection of Photographs/University of Iowa Libraries

Rivalry. Theft. A lost relic. Bad blood. Taunting. A 20-year mystery. A chance discovery.

This story I’m about to unfurl has it all, and it’s not something out of ‘Indiana Jones,’ but, rather, an episode CyHawk football series that played out over 100 years ago.

Let’s start at the beginning, 1913, when despite not even being 20 years old, the intrastate rivalry was already contentious and highly-anticipated.

“Aside from those interested as students or alumni of either institution there appears to be a more widespread interest among the citizens of the state, noncombatants who have no direct interest in either institution,” the Des Moines Register and Leader wrote then ahead of the game. “It is scarcely extravagant to predict that half of the male population of the state and a large percent of the women will await the outcome of tomorrow’s battle with a more or less fervent degree of interest.

“The struggles between these two elevens always have commanded an important place in the gridiron history of the various seasons in which they have been staged, but there is an unusual tenseness about the one in prospect.”

That intensity didn’t translate for ISU on the field, but perhaps with what happened after.

The Hawkeyes whipped the Cyclones, 45-7, in the most lopsided result in the young series’ history.

Following the contest, though, is where our story really picks up.

Apparently, some of the among 8,000 spectators who circled the field with “a solid mass of feverish humanity,” weren’t ready to let the games end.

A group of Ames students, presumably less than thrilled with the beating their team just suffered, stole from the university a bell “whose ardent tones each fall announced the score of the Iowa-Iowa State football game,” the Ames Daily Tribune and Times would write decades later.

Nothing screams rivalry like theft. Especially brazen theft.

The CyHawk game would only be played another seven times before going dormant for 13 years, and the bell appeared to be lost to history.

That is until, wildly enough, the series picked back up again.

After 13 years without butting heads, Iowa and ISU reignited their rivalry in 1933, just shortly after a former church was razed on the Iowa campus.

In the belfry of that church, workers found that very bell, 20 years after its disappearance.

Upon its discovery, the instrument, dubbed the “victory bell,” - not to be confused with the Victory Bell that’s been at ISU for more than a century and is still in use - was to become a traveling trophy in the CyHawk rivalry. The only problem would be the two schools would play just twice again before the series went dark for 43 years until being revived in 1977, with a new trophy and the bell presumably lost again to history.

It’s a heck of a story. Turn-of-the century football, classic college hijinks, a church bell tower and some well-timed construction. I only have one question.

Is it actually true?

The only documentation - and allegation - I could find about the pilfering of the bell comes from a Nov. 3, 1933, article in the Ames Daily Tribune and Times, which cites Arthur A. Smith, the University of Iowa’s acting superintendent of grounds and buildings in 1933 and a a student there in 1913.

Smith told the paper that a group of ISU students pinched the bell and stole it away in the bell tower in 1913.

I spent the week scouring microfilm, digital archives from both universities and books to find more direct supporting evidence, but couldn’t find anything to corroborate that version.

I did find some circumstantial evidence, however.

The building Smith said the bell was discovered in was built in 1868 as a church by a congregation of Universalists at the intersection of Clinton St. and Iowa Avenue in Iowa City. In 1907, it was bought by the university to turn into a student union. Those plans, however, didn’t immediately materialize and in 1913 the building went through the process of being converted into housing the School of Music. 

So, given the timing, it’s easy to imagine the building was unsecured as it underwent that transformation.

Then in 1932, the School of Music was relocated elsewhere on campus, so it stands to reason the building would have been scheduled for demolition in the fall of 1933 on the site of what is now Phillips Hall in Iowa City.

As for a group of 20-somethings moving an iron bell? Well, it was described as just 2-feet in diameter, and the building where it was found was only about three blocks from Iowa Field.

So that all tracks, albeit far from confirming the story.

There was one other tantalizing piece of information I found, though. More of a taunt, really.

It was in the 1915 edition of “The Bomb,” ISU’s yearbook, that gave a synopsis of the 1913 football season.

“Although the brilliant Iowa backfield ran ‘rings’ around the Ames tackles not a man stopped fighting till the last whistle was blown,” the yearbook reads.

Now, obviously, a bell “rings.” And that word - rings - is the only one among a few hundred devoted to the 1913 football season in the yearbook that was treated to quotation marks by its authors. The description of “fighting to the last whistle was blown” could easily be read as a sarcastic nod to playing well after the whistle - or a final tolling of a bell.

Coincidence or playful wink at some petty larceny?

More than a century later, I’m going to choose to believe the legend. Because what’s a rivalry without a little intrigue?