40,000 Nebraskans converged at 9th and Q in downtown Lincoln to greet the guest of honor on this hot July afternoon. Parents lifted small children over railings just to catch a glimpse. Pickpockets preyed on the distracted throngs. Faces in the crowd were brick red from the heat. Some fainted and had to be carted off to cooler locations. Wearing heavy coats, buttoned to the chin, police and National Guardsmen who were on hand to provide security, suffered even more than the general public.
Dressed head-to-toe in in cotton and linen, thousands of Nebraskans converge at 9th and Q
Despite the heat, the crowd surging through downtown Lincoln remained in good spirits. Save for Kansas City the day prior, this was the largest reception so far.
What most in the crowd didn’t notice was that just five days into a four-month, 275-city tour that would visit a quarter of the country’s population—their guest of honor was already starting to crack.
The show would go on. But this day, July 9, 1915, would be the last time the Liberty Bell visited Nebraska.
The real thing comes to Nebraska
Cracking, of course, is nothing new to the Liberty Bell. Cracking made it the most perfectly imperfect American symbol. But this one was new. Microscopic just a few days ago, the crack was now visible to its handlers’ naked eyes. While clearly this new crack was hastened by the vibrations from travel by train, the bell was nonetheless diagnosed by caretakers as “suffering the disease of metal” and the tour rolled on.
It would be another 35 years before Nebraska saw the Liberty Bell again—this time in the form of a full size working replica—identical, but for the crack.
Nebraska’s Liberty Bell was one of the original 52 commissioned by the U.S. Treasury and paid for by the American copper industry. Cast in the early months of 1950 at the Paccard Bell Foundry in Annecy-le-Vieux, France, the replicas would tour the states and some territories in an effort to drum up support for a U.S. Savings Bond drive during the summer of 1950.
On April 17, a ship carrying 52 bells weighing 2,080 pounds each, at a total value of $104,000 (over $1 million in today’s dollars) arrived at New York’s Brooklyn Navy Yard. The replicas were based on measurements taken from the real thing in Philadelphia and produced using the time-honored lost wax casting process.
Comprised of 80% copper and 10% tin, the bells bore the color of newly-minted pennies, not the weathered patina of the original. Identical in composition and tone to the original, these were no mere knockoff —they were functional bells, meant to be rung, loud and proud. Iron replicas would have looked just like the Liberty Bell, and cost $50 per unit. But they would have been monuments, not bells. The replicas were held in storage at the Navy Yard, waiting to be retrieved by their respective states.
But before the bell could help Nebraska sell savings bonds, someone needed to go get it.
Nebraska found the perfect man for the job in Omaha’s William “Bill” Bell. A 30 year-old World War II veteran and over-the-road trucker, who so far had safely logged 360,000 miles for the Watson Brothers Transportation Company, Bell was as well-qualified as he was well-named.
On the 12th of May, Bill Bell set out on the 1,200-mile trek to retrieve Nebraska’s Liberty Bell replica. His routes for Watson Brothers—who specialized in transporting relatively small, less-than-truckload (LTL) shipments—took him as far as Denver to the west, Topeka to the south and Chicago to the east. Much of this journey would be uncharted territory for Bell.
On arrival at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Bell was to complete a two-day training program before returning home. It’s likely he met some of the other Liberty Bell replica fleet drivers—likely veterans themselves, happy to be stateside, happy to be working, and uniquely qualified to deliver a ton of freedom back to their home states.
Bill Bell’s Red, White and Blue Ford truck
Bell’s rig was as unconventional as his cargo. Standing 11 feet tall and weighing in at 9,000 pounds, the brightly painted red, white and blue flatbed was one of a fleet of trucks furnished by the Ford Motor Company. The one-ton bronze bell was secured to the open flatbed with mountings donated by U.S. Steel. Thanks to an unprecedented public / private partnership, this drive would be undertaken with no material cost incurred by the Treasury.
The only thing to distinguish Bell’s cargo from that of the other truckers was a 3/4 inch number 48 stamped on the front of the bell, above the inscription which reads: PROCLAIM LIBERTY THROUGHOUT ALL THE LAND UNTO ALL THE INHABITANTS THEREOF. LEV. XXV X. The truck itself was adorned with a less profound, more direct slogan: Save for YOUR Independence — Buy U.S. Savings Bonds.
There seems to be no numerical logic as to how the Liberty Bell replicas were distributed among the states and territories. Was Bell among the last to pick up his cargo and so was paired with number 48, or was it purely the luck of the draw?
Bill Bell and Liberty Bell replica #48 left Brooklyn for his home state, stopping as infrequently as possible along the way. The savings bond drive was to start in a few days on May 15—with or without them.
Pennsylvania. Ohio. Indiana. Illinois. As he motored west, Bell may well have started to regard his cargo no differently than the washing machines and boxes of soap he had transported in his previous 360,000 miles. But as he crossed the Missouri river into Nebraska, he was home. And it was showtime.
Bell’s route through his home state was planned out stop-for-stop, and his schedule was tight. In about six week’s time, the tour would visit 80 towns in an effort to sell $11,285,000 in savings bonds by the fourth of July—about $9 per Nebraskan. Chairmen in each county would run the drive, and their quotas were dialed in down to the penny.
The Nebraska Liberty Bell rolls into Lincoln at 12th and O
On Friday, May 26, 1950, Liberty Bell replica #48 arrived at 12th and O in downtown Lincoln aboard Bill Bell’s brightly-colored Ford. Lincoln was to become its permanent home, but for now the bell was a touring act. Cargo and driver traversed the long and lonesome highway together. And they had a lot more stops to make.
The Liberty Bell replica stayed in Lincoln about as long as the real one did some 35 years earlier. The next day it was on to Omaha, then Wilber, Beatrice, Fairbury and most of the rest of the state. In each town, savings bond buyers could ring the Liberty Bell themselves—letting their neighbors know they had done their civic duty.
At a ceremony in Beatrice on July, 29, the bell was rung for the Girl Scout Brownies and the Declaration of Independence was read aloud by a district judge. Chairman Fred Lentz announced that Gage county and the state had so far reached less than half of their respective quotas. With just six days remaining in the drive, it would take a ninth-inning rally to pull off a victory.
With the drive on the line, Nebraskans stepped up and did their part, as did the rest of the country. When the U.S. Savings Bond drive of 1950 concluded, Americans had given 110% of the budgeted quota.
Newspaper ads promoted the bond drive
The 1950 bond drive was a resounding success. The bells had done their job—performing equally well as rousing patriotic symbols and effective marketing tools. As they had cost the Treasury department nothing, there were now no strings attached.
Had the bells been purely a means to an end, the Treasury could have added a cool $104,000 to their coffers, simply by selling them for scrap — no small amount for a department so focused on saving money. Regognizing their symbolic and patriotic value, it was decided the bells would be gifted to the states once the bond drive concluded.
In Nebraska, Governor Val Peterson now faced the same question as his counterparts across the country: what to do with a fully-functional Liberty Bell?
As America entered the atomic age, there was little demand for bells. As functional bells, they were not really monuments, nor were they terribly useful. And they were certainly not easy to move.
Beyond what the papers reported—that he would arrange for a permanent display after Independence Day — Peterson didn’t have a plan.
At a July 6 reception ceremony on the Capitol grounds, the governor recognized the Nebraska Liberty Bell’s power as a symbol in the atomic age, mixing patriotic duty with just the right amount of fear.
“Today, America is being challenged as never before. The Russian people, who subscribe to the oldest form of Government—tyranny—are challenging democracy, Christianity and the dignity of free man.” he proclaimed to the crowd of about 50.
Recognizing the Liberty Bell as a powerful symbol of American values in the face of the growing communist threat was one thing, figuring out where to put it was another.
Peterson decided to display the bell, for the time being, on the floor of the Capitol rotunda. In this location, it would be sheltered from the elements and admired by all who visit the Capitol. But the rotunda floor was no ordinary floor, even as Capitols go.
Created in 1928 by renowned Art Deco designer Hildreth Meiere, the marble mosaic floor depicts Earth, as the life-giver at center, flanked by classic Deco figures representing Water, Fire, Air and Soil—all encircled by lovely creatures from prehistoric life in Nebraska.
Hildreth Meiere’s 1928 Art Deco masterpiece
The headline of the Sunday, July 2nd edition of the Nebraska State Journal summed up the challenge bluntly: “Liberty Bell is a Problem.”
Fans of Meiere’s mosaic had a strong case. The floor was a monument unto itself. Any further adornment would be a detraction. Nonetheless, efforts to house the Liberty Bell elsewhere were ultimately unsuccessful. Peterson’s decision to move the bell to the Capitol rotunda would be carried out.
Now there was another challenge: getting the bell into the building. Completed in 1932—the third Capitol to be built on this location in a 55-year span—this one was built to last. It was not, however, built to accommodate a visitor quite as large as the Liberty Bell.
On July 7, the day after the Liberty Bell’s reception ceremony, Nebraska Capitol custodian Harold Hulfish stood, hat in hand, scratching his head.
Harold Hulfish (center), Governor Val Peterson (right) and an unidentified worker ponder their quandry
He knew the nearly four-foot-wide bell wasn’t going to fit through a three-foot-wide doorway. Nonetheless, he had a job to do. After some contemplation, he had an idea. If he could remove the bell from its stand and disassemble the revolving doors at the Capitol entrance, the bell just might make it through.
As Hulfish and crew gently eased the one-ton bell through the new opening, there was no room even for daylight to pass through the space between bell and threshold. It was a tight fit, but it fit.
It took nearly three hours to get the job done. The governor himself paid a visit to check on the progress. Finally, the Nebraska Liberty Bell replica, with crudely painted-on crack, was in its new home.
Admiring a job well done, Hulfish declared, “Now, I hope nobody tries to ring it.”
The Nebraska Liberty Bell replica did ring out in the rotunda. Eleven years later, on May 1st, 1961, it was rung by governor Frank Morrison to commemorate the 20th anniversary of U.S. Saving Bonds.
As ringing the bell at full volume indoors would be deafening, it was likely tapped on the outer edge with a felt-covered hammer.
The Nebraska Liberty bell’s residency on the Capitol rotunda floor was short-lived. Two days prior to Independence Day, 1964, the bell was moved out of the building, the same way it came in. Once outside, it was boxed and padlocked like a giant gift to the people of Nebraska. The box was opened at noon on the fourth of July and the bell was rung for 20 minutes. Jerome Henn, commander of the Nebraska American Legion, did the honors. The bell was then returned to the Capitol rotunda, protecting it from the elements.
The bell rang out again on Monday, May 2, 1966, along with most other state’s bells, to commemorate that year’s savings bond drive.
Ten years later, as the country desperately needed a shot of patriotism, the Liberty Bell was called upon again. The 1976 bicentennial celebration would see the bell hitting the road once more. Endorsed by the Nebraska and Iowa bicentennial commission, the Richman Gordman-sponsored community service project took the bell on a year-long tour of Nebraska. The job this time was to raise spirits, not money.
Denton’s own Ed Averill and his American Legion post transported the bell, visiting Grand Island, Omaha and all corners of the state. When the bicentennial tour took the bell back to the star city, it was welcomed at 45th and Vine with a day-long celebration. Dancers were scheduled to start promptly at 7:30pm.
The Nebraska Liberty Bell never made it back home to the Capitol after the bicentennial tour. Instead, it was quietly, unceremoniously crated and stored away at the Nebraska Army National Guard facilities maintenance office in Lincoln. The eighties, nineties and Y2k came and went—and the bell remained in storage. Few missed it, except for some bell hunters who were unable to snap their picture with it and check Nebraska off their list.
This was not the future Wade Martin imagined. While presenting Nebraska’s Liberty Bell to the governor in 1950, the chairman of the state bond advisory committee, proclaimed, “We sincerely hope that the significance of the bell and the building in which it is housed will be maintained.” While the communist threat was still being held at bay, the significance of the Nebraska Liberty Bell certainly was no longer being maintained.
Fortunately, it would not be doomed to a to an eternity in storage like the Kansas Liberty Bell replica. After 28 years out of public view, the Nebraska Liberty Bell gained a new lease on life, thanks again to a public / private partnership.
January 21st, 2005, Mayor Seng (left) joins Lincoln city officials and volunteers to announce plans for the bell’s permanent display
At a ceremony on February 2nd, 2005, Mayor Coleen Seng announced the Lincoln Cares program would provide the $15,000 in funding needed to build a shelter for the bell’s permanent display at the new Veterans Memorial Garden in Antelope Park. This was one of eight projects funded when an average of 6,600 Lincoln Electric Systems (LES) customers elected to add $1 to their monthly utility bill. Once again, Nebraskans did their part. Corporate sponsors sweetened the deal with 50-cent-per-dollar matches.
While plans were being made for its permanent home, the Nebraska Liberty Bell added one more fascinating chapter to its storied history. In what may be the only case of a Liberty Bell replica residing in a baseball stadium, #48 spent the 2005 season with the Lincoln Saltdogs at Haymarket Park in downtown Lincoln.
After its season with the Saltdogs, on Veterans Day, November 11, 2005, the Nebraska Liberty Bell was honored at a ceremony in Antelope Park. 55 years after it first rolled into Lincoln on the bed of Bill Bell’s red white and blue Ford, the Nebraska Liberty Bell had finally found a permanent home.
Major General Roger P. Lempke of the Army National Guard, Mayor Coleen Seng and Parks and Rec. Director Lynn Johnson welcome the bell
Mayor Seng acknowledged the significance of the bell’s new home as, “… the perfect place to observe Veterans Day and to reflect on the sacrifices our nation’s soldiers have made for families and liberty around the globe.” Illustrating the importance of the permanent location, she continued, “Future generations will enjoy the bell and its fascinating history.”
The Nebraska Liberty Bell replica certainly has had a fascinating history so far; trekking across the country, relocated by governors, touring the state twice, disappearing nearly for good and returning triumphantly to spend a year in the pros before finally finding a location deserving of its importance.
While its traveling days are behind it, #48’s future should be as rich as its past—sparking warm patriotic feelings in Nebraskan and visitor alike, ringing out for special occasions and standing ever-ready to pose for a picture with adoring fans.
-3 degrees? No problem. It’s sunny. The Nebraska Liberty Bell replica on January 2nd, 2018
The Nebraska Liberty Bell replica was the ninth one we visited. Overnight, as 2006 turned to 2007, a freak ice storm had frozen most of the midwest solid. Regardless, it was time to make the trip back home to Colorado from Minnesota, where we were celebrating the holiday with Dawn’s family.
So we white-knuckled the drive south through Minnesota, west through Iowa and into Nebraska. The entire state was eerily beautiful and completely still as every blade of grass, every telephone wire, every branch on every tree was coated with ice and glistening in the sun. While the roads weren’t in great shape, it seemed the surface of I-80 was the only part of the state not completely encased in ice. Dozens of big rigs were still stranded in the medians and ditches along the highway. As night fell and we rolled into Lincoln, it was time to find a dog-friendly hotel for our unfriendly dog, grab a bite to eat and bag another bell.
Road-weary, hungry and cold; we spent about three minutes with the Nebraska Liberty Bell replica and snapped some flash photos with my compact digital camera—shots I would misplace for about ten years.
I hadn’t done any research on this bell and it didn’t look like it had only been in Antelope Park for just over a year. It felt like it had been there forever. We slept well and were on our way early in the morning, taking in no more than the bell and the hotel.
Fast-forward eleven years. We’re making the same trek from Minnesota to Colorado—again on new year’s day. This time there was no ice, just dangerously low temperatures. While the weather in Minnesota bottomed out at -17 a few days prior, Lincoln was a balmy -3 as we rolled into town about 6pm.
With no dog to shelter and more time to spend, we decided to brave the cold and explore a bit of downtown Lincoln. While most restaurants were closed for new year’s day, we did have a lovely meal and nice, brisk walk through the Haymarket district.
Chicago Burlington & Quincy locomotive #710, in Lincoln’s Historic Haymarket district
The next morning, we took our good old time at the breakfast buffet and then headed over to Antelope Park. While it was still terribly cold, the sun was shining brightly on the Liberty Bell and we got some great shots.
We vowed to return to Lincoln in warmer weather. We’ll visit the Capitol, admire Hildreth Meiere’s marble mosaic floor and maybe take in a Saltdogs game.
Replica #48’s maker’s mark
Winter in Nebraska is no problem for #48
Dawn and me reprising our bell selfie
A beautiful monument in Veterans Memorial Garden commemorates four wars: the Great War (later rebranded as WWI), the Spanish—American War, the Civil War and the American Revolution