When Mark Williams heard that a demolition crew at Camp Roberts found an interesting object while knocking down some World War II-era buildings, he thought it must be another soldier’s long-lost wallet.
“They said, ‘We found something cool, and it’s in our truck.’ I wondered what would have to come in a truck,” said Williams, who oversees the environmental office at the camp. “And when we pulled down the tailgate, it was like, ‘Wow!’”
The discovery: an original cast-iron El Camino Real bell, more than a century old.
Within the same week, crews unearthed another surprising discovery — an old film canister containing a 1952 film reel for the Walt Disney production “Two Gun Goofy.”
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This film reel was found in the footprint of an administration building that was torn down in recent months. It was likely kept in a wooden safe the camp once stored in floor cutouts, said Blaize Uva, a contract archaeologist at the National Guard base just north of San Miguel.
“We think that the film was kept in one of these safes, which later deteriorated, leaving the film on the ground underneath the building, hence the good preservation,” she added.
Demolition of most of the camp’s World War II-era structures began last year. The first phase of the project will be complete in mid-June and has so far removed most of the ghost-town type buildings passersby saw along Highway 101. During the demolition, decades-old wallets have been turning up in the debris, shaken out from the hiding places thieves stashed them in long ago.
An old wooden bat, metal lighters, boot wax and tiny glass bottles with metal caps containing chlorine tablets for purifying water have also been found during the demolition. When a breakup letter from a soldier’s girlfriend was found, researchers chuckled at the woman’s desire to leave the man for another suitor who owned two cars while the solider had “just a Ford.”
Camp officials say the bell brings a broader historical connection to the general public.
“They were shocked to find something of this scale,” Uva said.
The bell, which dates to 1906 as one of the original markers placed along California’s historic El Camino Real, was found in Camp Robert’s landfill. The bells were cast and hung from posts, similar to the more modern bells that now hang along parts of Highway 101.
It took three or four men to lift the 85-pound bell into the camp’s environmental office so the team there could research it. No one knows if the bell was stashed in one of the old barracks knocked down or was somehow buried in the dirt and unearthed during the demolition. Part of El Camino Real winds through the camp, but no one knows if it came from that trail.
The office’s research so far shows that about 75 of the 475 original bells still exist today.
The camp’s bell is painted, which means it made it to a stage in the 1930s when the bells were painted green. But splashes of yellow paint on the bell have puzzled researchers, since there’s no historical connection to that color.
“I don’t think most people, when they look at it, know the whole story of this type of bell. But finding one today is very exciting,” said John Kolstad, owner of the California Bell Co. The company was the original maker of the bells and continues to track their history.
Kolstad said that the late A.S.C. Forbes designed the bells, creating the original collection from 1906 to 1909. Those bells, like Camp Robert’s bell, were inscribed, "El Camino Real 1769-1906," with the dates reflecting the founding of California’s first Mission in 1769 and the dedication of the first bell in Los Angeles in August 1906, according to Kolstad’s website. Forbes’ name is also inscribed on it.
The environmental office is working with the Camp Roberts Historical Museum on site to display the bell so the public can see it.
'Two Gun Goofy'
Camp Roberts often showed films to troops for entertainment, with shows consisting of a pre-movie cartoon, a news clip and the feature presentation, Uva said.
“Two Gun Goofy” is a cartoon starring Disney character Goofy as a cowboy in a western town trying to win a girl’s heart, researchers say.
The film reel found is marked as canister No. 2, meaning it was once paired with another that has not been found.
As Uva held up the film canister, she commented on how interesting its box was, motioning to a little metal latch and key. Inside, the film reel was still wrapped in a cardboard paper stamped with the movie’s title and production information along with handwritten notes.
“It’s cool to see some of the handwriting right from the page,” Uva said.
Below the paper, the film neatly wrapped around the reel wasn’t cracked or warped — something the environmental office team there says is phenomenal. Researchers discovered that the type of film was made to last about six months to a year in typical environments.
“It is rare that the film is in such great condition after 61 years of improper storage,” Uva said.
Camp Roberts does not have the facilities to archive the old film, so researchers are thinking about donating the movie to an organization, such as the National Film Preservation Foundation, or applying for a grant so the camp can properly maintain it on site and add to its historical collection.
“The objects keep coming in,” Uva said of the demolition’s finds. “It’s been exciting.”