The Bell Man of El Camineo Real

As a boy in the 1950s, mortgage and real estate broker John Kolstad was mystified by an iron bell hanging from an oversize shepherd’s crook near his home in Whittier, Calif. He later discovered it was one of the few survivors out of 425 bells hung between 1906 and 1913 on El Camino Real near California’s coast. In 1998, Kolstad went looking for a similar bell to decorate his yard in Saratoga; he wound up buying the company that made them. Since then, 555 bells cast from the original molds have been installed along the historic route. (408) 741-1549, www.californiabell.com.

Q What is El Camino Real?
A It’s "the king’s highway," a 600-milelong road that linked California’s 21 Franciscan missions in the early 1800s. It’s now mainly Highway 101 from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

Q Where do the bells come in?
A As early as 1890, El Camino Real was being lost to development.
A preservation group thought installing bells with signs every mile or so would promote tourism and mark the route and the missions. It worked.

Q Why bells?
A Their association with the missions made them effective symbols of the state’s Spanish history. And they looked nice.

Q What became of the original ones?
A Fraternity pranksters stole a few, but most were lost as contractors removed them to widen Highway 101. The bells weigh 85 pounds, so it’s not easy to just make off with them.

Q Will the new bells last longer?
A We think so, because there’s a great respect for California history these days. Also, we welded them in place.

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