Fort Worth forefather's family will give his historic bell a ring

FORT WORTH -- "Mason," the Masonic bell that dates to the founding of Fort Worth, has a family event to attend.

The bell will sound Saturday at the wedding of Samantha Molny and James Aaron Steel, the great-great-great-great-grandson of Lawrence Steel, one of the city's settlers. He owned the bell, which tolled for weddings and deaths and as an alert for residents along the banks of the Trinity River during the 1850s.

Steel's descendants and city historians believe that when Mason rings at the wedding, it will be the first time in more than 130 years that the bell is used by a member of the family.

"It's definitely an honor for our family to have the bell at the wedding," Aaron Steel said late last week as he proudly walked the grounds where his forefather's hotel and tavern once stood.

His father, James Steel, 47, said he grew up hearing about Lawrence Steel, one of 10 men who organized the first Blue Lodge, which became Lodge No. 148, the first Masonic Lodge chartered in Fort Worth, in 1855.

"I've always told my sons to know the men who came before them, to be as good as them or better," said James Steel, of Fort Worth.

He and his wife, Tonie, 46, said they were pleasantly surprised by Aaron's passion in researching the family history after reading about the bell when it was used at the dedication of the Fort Worth Police and Firefighters Memorial last year.

Pride and mystery

According to historic documents, the bell was central to the growing community. It called people to eat; it rang in the new year; it signaled school and fires, deaths and funerals; and it rang for weddings, too.

It is believed that the 16-inch bell, cast in London in 1782, is one of the oldest historic treasures in Fort Worth.

It is also believed that the bell was the only one in the area at the time the city's namesake fort stood on the bluff facing the Trinity River. It hung in the belfry of Steel's Tavern, a two-story hotel and stagecoach inn on the northwest corner of what was then the public square, between present-day Bluff and Belknap streets.

Lodge No. 148 has been its caretaker since it bought the bell from Steel in 1871 and has kept it an active part of the community. Mason, as the brotherhood affectionately calls it, resides at the Masonic Temple on Henderson Street and is cared for by Bob Holmes, master Mason and curator of the Masonic Temple Library & Museum.

All that is left where the tavern stood are "Steel's Trees," a cluster of three encircled by concrete. Overgrowth on one of the trunks obscures the historic marker. But a mystery remains for the family and the Masons: How did Lawrence Steel get the bell?

"What I've always hoped is that maybe the bell was a gift from George Washington" and was handed down, Aaron Bell said, noting that his research shows that Lawrence Steel's grandfather was a captain in the American Revolution under the man who would become the first president.

But no one really knows how Mason made it to Fort Worth.

"We had a fictitious story we'd tell kids, that it came over on the Mayflower, but we really don't know how Steel got it," Holmes said.

Deep connections

However it got here, Mason's presence at a Steel family event is long overdue, Molny and the Steels said.

"It's amazing to me that we get to use this bell, and [someday] we won't be here, but the bell still will be," said Molny, 24, of Fort Worth, who recently graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington.

The pair met about three years ago through a mutual friend while attending Tarrant County College.

"I hope that our children and their children can use the bell. It's nice to hopefully start that tradition," she said.

Aaron Steel, who attends Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University at Naval Air Station Fort Worth and works at Lockheed Martin Corp., happened upon another family tradition that has nothing to do with Mason: Several generations of Steels, including his father, James, have either worked at the plant or had some sort of connection to it.

"When Lawrence moved to White Settlement, he built his house, a church and school there," he said. "That area is now Lockheed's runway."

ELIZABETH ZAVALA, 817-390-7418