he venerable Mission Bell Historic Trail Markers, six of which line the El Camino Real in San Mateo, are in the midst of a gradual face lift. The California Federation of Women's Clubs (CFWC), in conjunction with California State Automobile Association (CSAA), took on the "El Camino Real Bell Restoration Project" in 1997. To date, three of San Mateo's bells have been adopted and restored by CFWC clubs, while the fate of the rest remain uncertain.
In San Mateo, the bells mark the city's portion of the old trail between the two closest missions, San Francisco de Asis, established in 1776, and Santa Clara de Asis, founded in 1777. The Alamo Women's Club restored the marker towering at the junction of El Camino Real and Highway 92. Another marker - residing south of the San Mateo/Belmont border, outside the Pilgrim's Kitchen parking lot - is the beneficiary of Belmont Federated Women's Club. The third marker stands in front of St. Matthew's Episcopal Church, restored by the CFWC itself.
"One of the missions of the Women's Clubs is to reclaim historic California landmarks." said Marianne Blasco, president of the Belmont Federated Women's Club Blasco.
"To date, the clubs have replaced 215 of the more than 400 original markers."
The original mission bell markers were established by Fray Junipero Serra and the Franciscan friars. The markers indicated the position of the old Kings Highway, which once stretched seven hundred miles from San Diego north to Solano. The King's Highway - El Camino Real in Spanish - served as the chief roadway connecting the twenty-one
Alta California missions, established by Spain between 1769 and 1823.
Most of the original mission bell markers had disappeared from the El Camino Real by 1906, when the predecessors of the CFWC decided to try to preserve those that remained. The distinctive design - the green cast iron post, curling in a question mark shape, dangling a mission-style bell at its end - is ascribed to Mrs. A.S.C. Forbes.
A member of the Pasadena Women's Club, Mrs. Forbes may have been the only female founder in the country at that time. She plied her trade in mission bell markers until 1940.
In 1922, the AAA Auto Clubs took responsibility for the bells, until it fell back to the State of California in 1933. Bell founder Justin Kramer took over the production of the bells in 1959, his Los Angeles foundry producing bells even today. Over the years, CalTrans struggled to safeguard the markers, but the staggering frequency and costs of theft and vandalism made the task extremely difficult. "Actually, many of the markers were lost to CalTrans and city street workers during the Sixties.", explains Maureen Everett, CFWC Bell Project Coordinator. "Many of them wound up in maintenance yards when the roads along the El Camino Real corridor were widened."
In 1997, CFWC and the CSAA assumed the Restoration Project as part of CalTrans "Adopt-a-Highway" program. More than one hundred new markers appeared within the first year. The ultimate goal is to place or replace 450 markers along the El Camino Real.
The restoration project is made possible by the donations and efforts of local CFWC clubs. Each club is invited to donate $500 for the placement or adoption of a bell on state property. CSAA then matches whatever the women's clubs contribute. The actual physical restoration may fall to whatever resources the club can find, including municipal street staff. Since the El Camino Real is also State Highway 82, permission from CalTrans must be obtained for each bell marker project standing on state property. However, any mission bell marker perched on private property adjacent to the Highway is not eligible for the project.
The three bell markers without sponsors are believed to reside on land not belonging to the state. One towers over a patch of green grass between the two ends of Clark Drive,
while another one stands outside Borders bookstore north of 31st Avenue. The third marker - south of Hayward Avenue near Sneider and Sullivan Funeral Home - has been reduced by vandals to a mere stump, the curling post and bell having long disappeared.
The Spanish California Missions have been venerated for bringing the first vestiges of European civilization to Alta California. The missions became the centerpieces of such great western communities as San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo. At the same time, critics have regaled the mission effort, which decimated native cultures such as the now extinct Costanoans of Northern California.