Santa Clara Valley Lives: Let preservation ring: California bells mark El Camino Real history

Robin Chapman/Special to the Town Crier
This Mission Bell Marker, nestled beneath a redwood, can be spotted when driving south on El Camino Real at El Monte Avenue in Mountain View.

Longtime Santa Clara Valley resident John Kolstad is a man on a mission. He has spent the past 19 years working to preserve the familiar Mission Bell Markers that have graced California’s historical El Camino Real for the last century.

The original ones were designed by Mrs. A.S.C. Forbes in the early 20th century, to mark the 700-mile route traveled by the first Spanish-speaking immigrants to California. The poles recall the shape of the shepherd’s crooks used by some of the wayfarers, with each pole topped by an 85-pound cast-iron bell – evocative of the California missions.

The original ones had directional signs on them and mileage to the next city. Installed in 1906, and paid for by private interests, they were, for many years, the only roadway signs in California. Mrs. Forbes had to buy her own foundry to forge them and became the sole woman bell-maker in the country. Simple in design and beautiful in execution, many of the markers were lost to theft and construction by the time the state took on their care in 1959.

In the year 2000, Saratoga resident Kolstad – owner of Direct Mortgage – began a quest to find just one of the old bells for his garden. He discovered what remained of Mrs. Forbes’ California Bell Company in the hands of its third owner, octogenarian Joe Rice, in La Crescenta.

“He had old bells and company files floor-to-ceiling in his garage,” Kolstad said. “I made him an offer and bought the company.”

Keith Robinson, principal landscape architect for Caltrans, worked with Kolstad to restore the markers and, with the help of federal grants, Caltrans installed 585 new Mission Bell Markers up and down the old El Camino Real – from Sonoma to San Diego – many of them just in time for the signs’ 2006 centennial. More were ordered by cities like Gilroy and for individual landmarks. Kolstad forged his bells from Mrs. Forbes’ old patterns, uncovered from the jumble in Rice’s garage.

As you drive Route 82 on the Peninsula – known locally as “El Camino” – and U.S. 101 throughout the state, see if you can spot them, 1-2 miles apart. Thanks to the help of one Santa Clara Valley man, they stand as graceful reminders of the California story, along our green and golden landscape.

For more information on the California Bell Company, visit

Robin Chapman is a local author and historian.

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