Lyle Lovett’s That’s right (you’re not from Texas) plays as we cross the Brazos River in our rented Nissan. Dawn drifts in and out of sleep while I drive. We’re now squarely in Texas A&M University territory. Aggie country.
We’re here to visit a unique, little-known piece of state history — the Texas Liberty Bell — one of 57 exact replicas commissioned by the U.S. Treasury as part of a 1950 Savings Bond drive.
This is our second time in this part of the country together. Lyle Lovett brought us to Texas for the first time, eighteen years ago — so it’s no coincidence he’s providing the soundtrack today.
Sometime in 1998, as I was making the hour-long commute from Denver to Fort Collins, Colorado — listening to Lyle on the tape deck of my ’96 Saturn sedan — I was inexplicably taken by a need to see Texas.
At the time, I worked with two Texans. I asked Eddie from Dallas his advice. He told me to go to Austin. I then asked Steve from Houston the same question. “Go to Austin.” He said.
A few months later, I got my chance. Dawn heard that Lyle was performing a free concert in downtown Austin to ring in the new millennium.
At this point we had been drinking buddies for over a year, working together for three months (she was my boss) and dating for a few weeks.
Impulsively, we decided to spend the turn-of-the-century together in Austin. In the spirit of inclusiveness, Dawn extended the invitation to the rest of the team. Most of of our coworkers didn’t yet know we were dating. Our design intern Tyson joined the expedition and the three of us were off to Texas.
Tyson, Dawn and me in Austin. In 1999, everyone had red eyes, wore shiny clothes and hair grew in strange places on men’s faces.
There are choices we make, experiences we have, people we spend time with — that feel like like everyday occurrences as we’re in the moment — but in hindsight prove to be turning points, without which your life could have gone in an entirely different direction. Y2K in Austin was one of those times.
Dawn and I already knew we enjoyed each other’s company. We knew we worked well together. We had some interest in seeing where this new romantic thing might go. In Texas, we found our uncanny gift for wandering into amazing experiences. In the nearly twenty years of seeing the world and elsewhere together, that gift has never let us down.
The dawn of a new millennium
Tyson and I dyed our hair in the sink of our room at the La Quinta. He went black. I attempted to go blonde, but my hair had other ideas. We wandered, explored, ate, drank and blended in with the locals as best we could.
Our first night we found ourselves at a dueling piano bar on the Main Street of Texas, Congress Avenue. They played popular songs and we all sang along. We were fitting in. A metal maniac since the age of 5, I was psyched to see the entire bar throwing up the heavy metal devil horns as the piano players launched into a new tune. But they weren’t playing Dio or KISS or Maiden — this song was entirely new to us. We rolled with it, tried our best to fit in and rocked along with the crowd, pretending we knew the words.
Later we’d discover that in Austin, that hand gesture has an entirely different meaning. They were singing the Texas Longhorns fight song. That’s right, we’re not from Texas.
The next day we rung in the new millennium as Lyle and Robert Earl Keen (both A&M alums) performed This Old Porch for a remarkably well-behaved outdoor crowd.
Y2K came and went without incident. The world did not screech to a halt. The feared massive crash of technology, and infrastructure, and society — cats and dogs living together — didn’t happen. Nothing bad happened.
Eighteen-and-half years later, we’re back — eager to see what Texas has in store for us this time.
This guy got his own star on the Texas Music walk of fame
This guy got his own beer
We left Longhorn territory about two hours ago, and we’ll be back in another three. Like most of our bell visits, the plan is to be in and out quickly.
The first thing I notice on the A&M campus is brown. Everything is brown. Whether built in 1909 or 1990, whether built with brick, stone or other materials — each building is the same brown.
it’s not odd that there are brown buildings. What’s remarkable is how much the brown stands out. It’s brown’s job to not get noticed — but this is a brave, bold brown. It’s the same brown as the Capitol in Austin. It’s the same brown as the dirt surrounding the massive brick factory we passed on our way into town. If this is home, then this is the brown of home — and I imagine that’s comforting. As an outsider, it takes some getting used to.
We drive through campus, unable to find non-permit parking and end up at a McDonalds just across the street. Heeding the signs that non-customers will be towed, we order a large fries, iced tea and secure a friendly assurance that it’s safe to leave the Nissan for a half-hour.
At 6 pm on a Friday, there’s a bit of traffic leaving town, but the campus itself is pretty empty, save for a procession of ROTC students clad in A&M brown.
While it seems remote, College Station is actually conveniently located less than 200 miles from two of the ten largest metro areas in the country and 75% of the population of both Texas and Louisiana. As an east-coaster whose college was 7 miles from my home, this still feels like the middle of nowhere. Not by Texas standards.
While the Texas Liberty Bell is not the only replica to reside outside of the capital city — as is sometimes claimed — it may well have been the first to receive such a distinction.
A wiki dedicated to dispelling Aggie myths cites this site in an attempt to minimize the Texas Liberty Bell’s importance — outing it as a mere advertising prop and not the only non-capital bell. The truth is, this bell comes with a more compelling story — imbued with more significance — than arguably any other replica.
Texas A&M holds two unique distinctions. Not only is it a land-grant university, it’s also a sea-grant and space-grant university. Only eight other schools can claim that trifecta of designations.
A&M is also one of six Senior Military Colleges — schools that educate a full-time, volunteer Corps of Cadets who study along with civilian undergrads. On this particular Friday night, the Cadets are marching as most of the civilian students head home.
My school is best known as Bill Cosby’s alma mater. He could have gone anywhere. He chose Temple.
When America declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, the entire A&M senior class enlisted in the military — half entering officer-training camp. About 2,000 Aggies went off to fight the great war. 60 never returned — half dying in combat and half felled by airplane accidents or the influenza epidemic.
A 25-foot service flag with maroon stars for those who served and gold stars for those who perished hung from the fourth floor of the rotunda in the Academic Building from 1918 to 1943.
During World War II the Aggies again stepped up, providing 20,229 combat troops. A&M produced more officers than any other school, and more than the U.S. Naval and U.S. Military Academy combined: 14,123 in all. During WWII, 29 Aggies reached the Generals rank and seven received the Medal of Honor. 854 Aggies paid the ultimate price.
A&M was one of six engineering colleges to participate in the Electronics Training Program, where Navy personnel trained 12 hours a day over ten months to learn how to maintain radar and other cutting-edge electronics.
In wars and between wars
With the Second Great War only five years gone and the next war looming, the U.S. Treasury kicked off an ambitious Savings Bond drive in the summer of 1950 — with the goal of raising $650 million ($6.7 billion in today’s dollars). The Treasury commissioned the storied Paccard Bell Foundry in France to cast at least 57 individually numbered exact replicas of the Liberty Bell (minus the crack). 53 of these bells would tour the states and territories on flatbed Fords as promotional tools under the slogan “Save for Your Independence.”
Nearly all of the expenses were covered by corporate sponsors, and volunteer coordinators were appointed down to the county level, with sales quotas dialed in down to the penny.
The Treasury decided the bells would be gifted to their respective regions upon completion of the drive. Most states had no idea what to do with 2080 pound functional Liberty Bell. No so for Texas.
With the notable exception of squirrels, which seem to be an entire race of baby squirrels, everything’s bigger in Texas — and the bond drive was no exception. In all, the Texas Liberty Bell replica logged 5,000 miles visiting 120 towns and raising $24,088,000.
If you look closely, you’ll see a tiny Texas squirrel in the center
While some replicas lingered, wandered or were lost awaiting a permanent home, Texas Governor Allan Shivers presented his bell to A&M on July 5, 1950 — the day after the bond drive ended. Breaking with most of his counterparts, Shivers didn’t keep the bell in the capital city. As a Longhorn, this decision may have given him pause. As a veteran who served as an Army Major in WWII, the decision was easy.
“No one has suffered more than the Aggies, so we will give it to them.” Shivers declared in no uncertain terms as he presented the bell Dr. M.T. Harrington, president of Texas A&M.
While memorializing the past, the Governor also saw the bell as a powerful American symbol in the face of the growing Communist threat.
“As the Declaration of Independence and the constitution are documentary symbols of our freedom, the Liberty Bell is a physical symbol of our liberty and independence. It has been truthfully said that the fight for freedom never ends. In wars and between wars, the fight goes on against foes from without and within. The Liberty Bell is a symbol of our faith in the cause for which we fight. Its clear tone will remind us that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”
Shivers later supported a state bill that would impose the death penalty as punishment for membership in the Communist party, declaring such offense “worse than murder.”
Shivers was a man who knew what he liked and what he hated, and Texas loved him. He was so popular in fact, in the 1952 gubernatorial contest he was on both the Democratic and Republican tickets. Democrat Shivers beat Republic Shivers handily as his two candidacies combined pulled in 98.05% of the vote. A Communist leader could learn a thing or two from this guy. Vladamir Putin garnered only 77% of the vote in his last election.
The Texas Liberty Bell was suspended inside the rotunda of the Academic Building, just as the WWI service flag was for decades.
As intended, the bell has rung out on special occasions. On the Fourth of July, 1963 — in response to president Kennedy’s “Make Freedom Ring” initiative, a Boy Scout troop rang the bell for two minutes straight.
Dawn and I wolf down our fries as we walk across campus at our usual swift pace. A young Cadet blows past us at a considerably faster clip, yet he’s still somehow not running. The Academic Building comes into view and we enter through the back door. This is the first bell we’ve seen displayed in such a manner, and it’s impressive.
Each of the 57 original replicas should bear a unique serial number. For over a decade, my quest to see all of the bells has been guided by a list I got from the fine folks at the Liberty Bell Museum in Allentown PA. That list includes locations and serial numbers for 55 bells.
But I recently discovered there were at least 57 numbered bells — one of which has been missing for decades — and the serial numbers don’t all match up. I’m now working to confirm all the serial numbers and make necessary corrections to the list.
The Texas bell should be number 21. To document it, I’m armed with a scope for my iPhone to find and shoot the half-inch-tall, raised serial number. The digits will be above either the word proclaim on the front of the bell, or the word unto on the back.
There is no serial number to be found on the Texas bell, however. Curiously, it’s also missing the words Paccard Annecy-France which are inscribed above the bottom set of rings on most of the original replicas.
My best guess is that some of the replicas lack a serial number or have serial numbers in less visible locations.
The Texas Liberty Bell replica somehow feels both revered and neglected in this location. It has weathered more than I’d expect for a bell that’s been indoors since 1950.
Understandably hard to reach, the bell has accumulated seemingly a decade’s-worth of dust. Some sort of sticky liquid is dripping down from the rotunda dome onto the front side of the bell.
The Texas Liberty Bell replica is actually only one of 50 Paccard bells on campus. A short walk from the Academic Building stands the Albritton Bell Tower.
Donated to the school in 1984 by Martha and Ford D. Albritton, the tower holds 49 bells cast at the Paccard Bell Foundry — the largest weighing in at 6,500 pounds — three times as heavy as the Liberty Bell replica. The bells are programmed to peal on the quarter hour.
Beaux-arts and brown: Texas A&M’s Academic Building
As we have yet to see the building’s best side, we exit though the front door. As we enter the relatively quiet Academic Plaza, we turn around for a moment to admire the building’s 1914 beaux-arts classical design, say hey to the Sully statue and decide where to go from here.
About ten minutes remain on our unofficial McDonalds parking meter. Cadets gather at the nearby Simpson Drill Field as spectators sit in the shade of large oak trees, each one planted to honor an Aggie killed a century ago in WWI.
To our right is a beautiful sprawling tree, its branches forming a canopy over the pavement. Sleek black steel beams hold up some of the branches, like stilts in a Dalî painting.
We wander toward the tree, stroll beneath it, then pick up the pace to our car for the two-hour drive back to Austin as the sun sets across this great big state. We arrive with just enough time for dinner, beers and a Mad Dog Margarita at famed Austin dive, the Texas Chili Parlor.
Weeks later, while doing research for this article, I learned that the lovely tree we strolled beneath was a live oak. Prevalent in the south, live oaks are not like ordinary oak trees — they’re evergreen. Leaves fall not seasonally, but once they have lived a full life. While common in the area, this particular live oak is something special.
Planted around the turn of the twentieth century, and appropriately named the Century Tree — Aggie tradition holds that if you walk under the tree alone, you’re destined for a life of loneliness, but if you walk beneath it with another, you will be together forever.
Texas A&M’s Century Tree, a famous tree of Texas
Of course, everyone here already knows the legend. They propose beneath the Century Tree; they get married beneath the Century Tree; they take lots of romantic photos beneath the Century Tree.
But we’re not from Texas, so we didn’t know any of that. To us, it was just another pretty tree.
Well it looks like we’re stuck with each other now.