The History of the Old Iron Bell Game in Centre County
Tagged under: District 6, News
Kerry Shawley | September 7, 2023
Note: This Friday at Penns Valley the 2-0 Rams host the 2-0 BEA Eagles in the Battle for the Bell. BEA holds possession of the Old Iron Bell after winning the game last year. This year, both teams are ranked in the state, playing in a new conference and a win here could be key later in the season as playoffs are set.
When Penns Valley and Bald Eagle meet on the football field Friday evening more than bragging rights are on the line. The winner of what has become one of Centre County’s biggest rivalries gets to take with them the Old Iron Bell. Here is the story behind the Old Iron Bell.
As the jointures were forming what we now know as the Penns Valley and Bald Eagle school districts in the mid 1950’s, the Centre Daily Times envisioned these two schools forming a rivalry like the one that existed between Bellefonte and State College. The winner of that game took home the Iron Kettle, and the CDT went looking for something that Penns Valley and Bald Eagle could play for every year.
In a story, written by Paul Poorman, that appeared in the Centre Daily Times on November 16, 1955, he tells how the Old Iron Bell became the symbol of a rivalry.
George Stine, a Coburn antique dealer, and Harold Lieghtley, a Bellefonte auctioneer discovered an old bell on the land that now surrounds the site of the Penns Valley High School but was once known as Fort Watson in the late 18th century. Fort Watson was an old Indian outpost. Legend has it that the bell sat atop a structure located on Fort Watson. The fort was frequently mentioned by soldiers that were serving in this area before and during the Revolutionary War. It is believed that the bell was used to warn of raiding Indians. When the bell was discovered, it was missing its clapper.
According to legend, it is believed that an Indian snuck into the fort and removed the clapper, thereby rendering the bell useless as a warning device. After removing the clapper, the Indian started down the roof, but dogs inside the fort detected his presence and alerted the inhabitants of the fort to the invaders. The defenders of the fort awoke to see the dark forms of the Indians departing. The soldiers were unaware of the clapper being removed until sometime later when the bell failed to ring when Indians were sighted nearby.
When the Centre Daily Times was alerted to Stine and Lieghtley’ s discovery, they thought that the bell would be an excellent symbol for the rivalry. The two men agreed, thinking it would serve a double purpose. Obviously, it would record the course of the football rivalry between Bald Eagle and Penns Valley; just as importantly, it would also serve as a historical reminder of the early Indian fort.
Upon its discovery, the bell was in rough shape and Sutton Engineering of Bellefonte was tasked with turning it into a trophy. J. Ernest Martin of Bellefonte oversaw the project and Jesse Klinger and Ralph Miller repaired the bell. It was scrubbed, sand-blasted, and painted gold.
Now that a symbol for the rivalry had been found, all that remained was to determine when the rivalry would commence.
While Penns Valley did not start playing football until the building that would house their jointure opened in September of 1956, Bald Eagle had fielded a football team for three years and was playing a mostly varsity schedule. Penns Valley would be playing a schedule made up mostly of junior varsity teams for at least a couple of years, so it was believed that Bald Eagle and Penns Valley wouldn’t play until the early 1960’s. Fate intervened, and the rivalry would begin sooner than expected.
In 1957, Bald Eagle was scheduled to play South Williamsport. That game had to be cancelled due to a flu outbreak and Bald Eagle was left scrambling for an opponent. Bald Eagle contacted Penns Valley and a contest between the Bald Eagle junior varsity and the Penns Valley varsity was changed to a regular varsity contest; a rivalry was born. Bald Eagle won that first game, but the first time the two teams played for the Old Iron Bell was the 1958 contest. Bald Eagle would go on to win the next three contests by a combined score of 126-20. Following the 1960 contest, the series was paused for the first time. The two teams would not play again until 1965. When the rivalry continued, so did Bald Eagle’s dominance, winning every game through 1969.
Following that contest an article, written by Sportswriter Ron Bracken, appeared in the Centre Daily Times which suggested the rivalry should go on hiatus again. There were legitimate reasons to consider it. At the time Bald Eagle was much larger than Penns Valley. They had an enrollment of 684 students in grades 10-12. Penns Valley had only 453 in the same three classes. Prior to the 1969 season, Bald Eagle had 90 boys turn out for pre-season football drills, Penns Valley had 38.
The teams would not play the next two seasons. When the series resumed, Bald Eagle continued winning, but those games in 1972 and 1973 were far more competitive; it appeared Penns Valley was closing the gap.
In 1974, Penns Valley closed the gap entirely and would finally bring the Iron Bell back home with a dominating 31-6 victory. Bald Eagle would get the Old Iron Bell back in 1975, but that was the year the series became everything you expect in a great rivalry. The game was close and hard fought throughout, and there were several controversial calls, including the ejection of star tailback, Dan Braucht, that had Penns Valley Coach, Bob Sealy seething.
Unfortunately, just as the rivalry had finally become what was envisioned at its inception, it took another break. This break was due to scheduling issues. Bald Eagle was unable to play the game later in the season because of their conference obligations, and Penns Valley didn’t want to play it too early in the season because Coach Robert Sealy didn’t think it was in the program’s best interests. William Lance, Penns Valley’s Athletic Director at the time, explained: “It takes a while for our kids to progress to the point where they are ready to play a team of Bald Eagle’s caliber.” Both schools wanted the series to continue and thought the break would be temporary; it would last twenty-one years.
The series finally resumed in 1996 when Bald Eagle triumphed over the Rams 33-0, but it would be another four years before the teams would meet again. In 2000 the teams met in the final game of the season and the Rams defeated Bald Eagle 55-0, and except for the 2002 season, it has been played every year since.
Overall, Bald Eagle holds a 24-13 advantage in the series. Bald Eagle won the first eleven contests and thirteen out of the first fifteen, but since the series resumed annually in 2003, it has become a competitive, hard-fought rivalry with Penns Valley holding a very narrow 11-10 edge in those twenty-one contests.
Of the thirty-seven contests that have taken place between the two schools, there were two in which the teams were not competing for the Old Iron Bell. As mentioned earlier, the first contest in 1957 was not an originally scheduled game. Penns Valley was a last-minute fill in for an opponent who was unable to play due to illness. The most recent contest took place in last season’s District 6 Semifinals. Penns Valley won that contest, but Bald Eagle still has possession of the Old Iron Bell due to their victory in the regular season contest.
If you are interested in learning more about the rivalry, Centre County Sports Historian, Harry Breon has written a book entitled, “Battle for the Old Iron Bell”. There are stories and statistics from each game played through the 2021 season.
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