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John Kolstad is working to install bells along the historic El Camino Real.

In 1998, John Kolstad began re-landscaping his backyard and decided he would like to install a bell. Not just any bell, but a replica of the El Camino Real bells that had once marked the path between missions from San Diego to Sonoma.

Unable to find such a treasure, he launched a search that landed him at the Southern California home of Joe Rice, who had closed the California Bell Company some 40 years before. Rice agreed to grab an old bell out of his garage and sell it to Kolstad — as long as he was willing to buy the entire bell-making company, all boxed up in his garage.

On Friday, Kolstad will be in Pacific Grove to tell of his lifelong fascination with El Camino Real bells, and how his curiosity and his quest led him to buy the bell company and reinstate the landmarks along the historic route.

"Once I learned about the fate of the California Bell Company," said Kolstad, "I started thinking out loud. I wondered what would happen when Joe Rice passed away. All the legacy would be gone. If I didn't pick it up, who would? No one else had the passion I did for these bells."

The cast-iron bells were designed by Mrs. A.S.C. Forbes in 1906. By 1913, a reported 450 bells were in place along the El Camino Real. Forbes established the California Bell Company a year later.

When Kolstad bought the company "sight unseen," he said, "Joe lifted up the garage door and pulled out an El Camino bell. I didn't know anything about casting and foundries. I wrote him a check, crawled into the garage and discovered the patterns, molds, tools, documents and old bells still wrapped in 1948 newspaper from when Mrs.


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Forbes sold her company."

Kolstad has been intrigued by the bells since he was 8 years old. He remembers riding his bike around Whittier and pedaling to the corner of Colima Road and Whittier Boulevard to study the curious copperized bell stationed there.

"I remember thinking that the bell was so old and out of place," Kolstad said. "The area, established right after World War II, was fairly built up. I wondered what an old bell like that was doing in modern times. I always looked for other bells when riding along but found none."

Two years later, while working on his fourth-grade mission project, Kolstad visited the San Gabriel Mission and came across another bell. His teacher told him the bells were used to mark the missions and other landmarks along the great El Camino Real. The story ignited his fascination.

After buying the bell company, Kolstad moved the materials into a warehouse, where they remained for a few years, until he began making an El Camino replica from pieces and parts and patterns.

"I had my bell cast and took it to Sacramento, where I showed it to the head of architecture for Caltrans. He had as much passion for these bells as I did, and wrote a grant for a $1.24 million project to install 555 bells from San Francisco to Los Angeles," Kolstad said.

Kolstad then turned to his old inventory: some 8,000 little bells and 1,400 miniature El Camino Real bells on a stand that would sit nicely on a desk. He contacted the American Bell Association, which was hosting a convention in Ontario. He brought a full-size El Camino Real bell and a lot of little bells, and found out just how collectible they are.

Kolstad received a call from Huell Howser, who had purchased some of Kolstad's bells at the convention, where he was filming a segment for his PBS program "California Gold." Howser wanted more bells to give as a gift during a pledge break. During the 20-minute break, Kolstad said, some 1,500 bell orders came in, breaking all PBS records for total gross sales and profits across the country.

Today, Kolstad, a mortgage broker, has a 1906 El Camino Real bell in his backyard, plus three or four others of 100-year vintage and a few of Forbes' smaller designs.

In keeping with her passion to preserve history, Kolstad is working with California cities to reinstall bells on the original route along Highway 101 from Sonoma to San Francisco and Los Angeles to San Diego.

On the Monterey Peninsula, El Camino Real bells are stationed behind the "Welcome to Historic Monterey" sign at Casa Munras, in the courtyard of the Museum of Monterey at Custom House Plaza, and on the corner of Camino El Estero and Webster Street at El Estero.


If you go
·What: John Kolstad lecture, "California's Historic Mission Bells," hosted by the Pacific Grove Heritage Society
·When: 7 p.m. Friday
·Where: Pacific Grove Performing Arts Center at Pacific Grove Middle School, 835 Forest Ave.
·Cost: Heritage Society members free, nonmembers $10 and family/couples $15
·More information: 372-2898 or www.pacificgroveheritage.org