Lunch is at noon, supper is at 6, and kids must be off the streets at 9. The Excelsior siren says so. Every day, an old fire alarm perched atop City Hall in Excelsior has blurted out these hours since the 1940s. Before the alarm, a bell rang out the time to call in the farmers from the fields, the sailors from their boats and the vacationers to the table.
In an earlier world, when not everyone relied on a wristwatch (or a cell phone, as is done nowadays), time was told by the light of the sun or the peals ringing from the church steeple. As a holdover from earlier days, the Excelsior siren still sounds the divisions of the day. While the daily blasts are continuous, shorter spurts of noise signal distress or a fire.
The daily siren is triggered by a clock, but this fire alarm was once set off by “a telephone exchange on Water Street [that] would receive a telephone call about a fire. Then the operator rang the siren. The first one to the fire station called the operator for the address of the fire,” retired firefighter John Sweeney told the Lakeshore Weekly News in 2008. (The siren shouldn’t be confused with the much louder tornado siren.)
Famous fires swept away Lake Minnetonka’s grandest hotels in spite of alarms set up to warn the guests. James J. Hill’s Lafayette Hotel was slated to be torn down by the summer of 1898, but a blaze beat the wrecking ball in October 1897. With the water already turned off for the season, the flames burned freely for three hours before the Minneapolis Fire Department arrived to see the charred remains. To avoid such calamities, a second siren stands next to the main one in Excelsior as back up, but firefighters rely on pagers or even cell phones today.
Newcomers to Excelsior might be puzzled or annoyed by the loud alarm three moments per day (baffles have been raised to dull the noise for some neighbors), but many love this talking clock to remind them of the time. Modern mealtimes aren’t as strict as the past, and the 9 p.m. curfew only applies to kids 12 and younger on weekdays.
“As a parent, I love the siren,” says Natalie Hagemo of Excelsior. “When my kids were younger, they knew when it was lunch or dinner time when they were out.”