History St Landry History Community

The Bell Tolled for Ole Opelousas

Publisher and Contributing Writer

Feature Photograph: The old courthouse bell, manufactured in 1896, remains on the top floor of the St Landry Parish Courthouse in downtown Opelousas today. (Photograph by Layne Herpin.)

Although all places have history, it seems the history of our town is so interesting. There is always something to discover about this special place. For example, do you know about the large bell in the St. Landry Parish Courthouse? Do you know why it is there? That bell rang for decades in downtown Opelousas, and it has a story to tell.

Soon after the Louisiana Purchase at the beginning of the 19th century, St. Landry Parish was established. A courthouse was constructed on land that would eventually become the center of present-day downtown Opelousas, the parish seat. At that time a large bell was put in the courthouse to serve the public. The bell was used to notify the local citizens about important events and activities in the community, and to inform them of some danger in the town. It tolled for a fire, and using a code of signals, the number of rings let the firefighters and citizens know where the fire was located. It tolled to summon lawyers to court so they would be on time. It tolled to let people know a jury had reached a decision in an important trial, and it tolled when those convicted received a sentence. It tolled to announce the start of meetings for the St. Landry Parish Police Jury and the Opelousas Board of Police. It tolled to warn the community that there was bad weather in the area. And it tolled for special occasions, events and activities. So that bell was very important to the Opelousas community

Fire Signals that were used for the ringing of the courthouse bell to warn the Opelousas community about a fire in town. In 1901, the town was divided into Fire Districts and a Code of Signals was adopted to let Opelousas citizens known the location of fires in the town. Short taps of the courthouse bell indicated a district where the fire was located, followed by a rapid alarm, repeated several times. (From Opelousas courier, January 30, 1904, Page two.)

When a new courthouse replaced an old one, the bell was moved to the new building. Not sure if there are any records obtainable saying how many different bells were used in the courthouses of St. Landry Parish over time. We do know there were at least two, the one that was in the courthouse destroyed by fire in 1886, and the bell that was installed in the courthouse in 1896 and later moved to the present courthouse.

In 1896, the bell was installed in the St. Landry Parish Courthouse, pictured here in the early 1900s. It remained in that building until 1938 when it was moved to the courthouse square during the construction of the new courthouse building. When the new courthouse opened in 1940, the bell was placed on the top floor, where it remains today.

Made of pure copper, the bell weighs over 1,000 pounds. It was molded in 1886, with J, Regester and Sons, running the Baltimore, Maryland Bell Foundry, pouring the bell, and it was patented on July 13, 1896. It was installed in 1896 in the Opelousas courthouse and remained on the top floor until the old building was demolished in 1938. During that year, the courthouse bell was removed and place on the courthouse square, where it remained until the new courthouse was completed, and opened in 1940. That courthouse is the one we know today, with the bell still located on the top floor.

Interesting Notes on the Bells Over the Years

There has been some information about the courthouse bells in the local newspapers from time to time. In 1876, Major A. P. Williams, chief deputy and Sheriff C. C. Duson’s most efficient officer, broke his arm while jumping from the floor to reach the Courthouse bell rope.[1]

In 1877, the St. Landry Parish Police Jury passed a resolution stating the Courthouse bell be placed under the direct charge of the Sheriff, and that “all persons are hereby prohibited from ringing the same, unless authorized by him; except in case of an alarm of fire; any person ringing the same in violations hereof shall be subject to a fine of not less than five dollars nor more than twenty-five dollars, or imprisonment in the parish jail for not less than one day or more than ten days, suit to be brought before any magistrate.[2]

In 1902, the courthouse bell was used to announce the closing of all stores in town. The St. Landry Clarion reported on May 3 of that year: “The stores now close at 7:30 o’clock p.m. The Janitor of the courthouse rings the bell at that hour, and it is agreed that at the tap of the bell all stores close. This agreement was reached last week, and the Clarion desire to congratulate the merchants of this town on this action on their part.”[3] Also in 1902, the courthouse bell was used every evening to announce the beginning of the 7:00p.m. curfew in Opelousas. That year the Opelousas Board of Aldermen passed a resolution stating, “any kid under 18 caught on the streets after that hour when the Courthouse bell will tap, without a permit from parent or guardian, will be arrested and fined in a sum not exceeding ten dollars.”[4]

On June 13, 1904, the bell tolled an alarm at 1:45 in the afternoon, notifying the community there was a fire in downtown Opelousas. Area firemen heard the alarm and rushed to the downtown. That was a horrible fire that almost destroyed the downtown. But because of the bell’s alarm, and the brave men who fought the fire, there were no lives lost, downtown Opelousas was saved with just a few buildings lost, and a few more with very little damage.

On April 27, 1914, when William C. Walters was put on trial for the alleged kidnapping of young Bobby Dunbar, the bell was tolled over, and over again to spread the news across the entire city about Walters’ conviction, and later on May 9th of that year, it rang again announcing Walters sentencing to the penitentiary.[5] Also in 1914, the St Landry Parish Police Jury granted permission to the city of Opelousas so its fire alarm system could be attached to the courthouse bell.[6] The city paid all expenses and installed an electrical system that triggered the bell to ring different numbers to signal a fire in a specific location.[7]

At 11:35p.m. on Saturday, October 27, 1916, Opelousas citizens were awakened from their sleep by the continuous ringing of the large courthouse bell. The bell tolled to spread the news over the entire city that the jury in the murder trial of Hilaire Carriere had reached a decision. Carriere was being tried for the murder of St. Landry Parish Sheriff Marion Swords earlier that year. After six and a half hours of deliberation, the 12-man jury found Carriere “Guilty as Charged,” and he was sentence to death.[8] After the bell rang, hundreds of people rushed to the courthouse during that night just to hear that verdict.

The regular ringing of the old courthouse bell continued without interruption for over seven decades until the 1970s. When the courthouse underwent renovations in 1989, the last remnants of the old jail, including the iron bars and doors, were hauled away from the third floor of the building. But what remained was the old bell on the roof, with its rope to ring it still running down into the walls. At one time it was rung from the judge’s chambers.[9]

Eli Ardoin, of Eunice, LA, a bailiff in Judge Joe LaHay’s Court, rings the old courthouse bell in 1970.

The bell also tolled for some special event or activity happening in the city of Opelousas. As an example, in 1994 the Chamber of Commerce’s Image Enhancement Committee, the Opelousas Tourism and Activities Committee, and Main Street Opelousas all came together to hold a rally on the courthouse square. The purpose of the rally called “Oh Wow, Opelousas Now!,” was to promote Opelousas as a great place so people would feel better about the town, The ringing of the old courthouse bell was one of the special happenings during this rally.[10] That may have been the last time it was sounded.

The Bell in 2022

Today the old bell remains on the top floor of the courthouse, but not for long. St. Landry Parish Council President Jessie Bellard is making plans to move the courthouse bell to the outside of the building and set it up somewhere on the square. According to Layne Herpin, Public Relations Officer with the St. Landry Parish Government, the exact location has not yet been determined, and there is no exact date set for the moving of the bell. That information will soon be released.

St. Landry Parish Council President Jessie Bellard is shown ringing the old courthouse bell on the top floor of the St. Landry Parish Courthouse. The bell will be moved to a location on the courthouse square sometime soon. (Photograph by Layne Herpin.)

Let the old bell toll again for Opelousas

Will the old bell toll again? Hopefully it will. Wouldn’t it be great to hear that sound each day in downtown Opelousas? Maybe the parish council will have someone toll the bell at noon every day. We should ask for that.

[1] St. Landry Democrat, Opelousas, Louisiana, May 3, 1876, Page three.

[2] St. Landry Democrat, Opelousas, Louisiana, June 2, 1877, Page four.

[3] St. Landry Clarion, Opelousas, Louisiana, May 3, 1903, Page one.

[4] St. Landry Clarion, Opelousas, Louisiana, November 15, 1902, Page one.

[5] St. Landry Clarion, Opelousas, Louisiana, May 2, 1914, Page one.

[6] St. Landry Clarion, Opelousas, Louisiana, May 9, 1914., Page five.

[7] St. Landry Clarion, Opelousas, Louisiana, May 30, 1914, Page one.

[8] St. Landry Clarion, Opelousas, Louisiana, November 4, 1916, Page one.

[9] Daily World, Opelousas, Louisiana, April 5, 1989, Page five.

[10] Daily World, Opelousas, Louisiana, August 24, 1994, Page one.