Why is Virginia’s Liberty Bell at a firehouse?
There is a Liberty Bell replica in every state. All but five can be found in the capital city, either at the Capitol building or in nearby open spaces or museums. But in New Jersey, Texas, Pennsylvania, Washington and Virginia, you have to venture a little farther.
So how did the Virginia Liberty Bell end up in front of a firehouse on a nondescript thoroughfare in Charlottesville, an hour’s drive from the state capital? The story starts some 70 years ago.
In 1950 the US Treasury commissioned the historic Paccard foundry in France to cast full-size, functional Liberty Bells. The replicas toured the 48 states and five territories on flatbed Fords, promoting the summer Savings Bond drive. Buy a Bond, ring the Liberty Bell — a perfectly patriotic transaction.
Upon completion of the drive, the Treasury gifted the bells to their regions. That’s not how states typically acquired monuments. There were no feasibility studies. No citizen input. No action committees. And no one was responsible for the bell. So the buck got passed up the chain of command until it landed on the governor’s desk.
Some states handled it better than others. Delaware and the city of Wilmington played hot potato with their bell, neither wanting ownership. Illinois and South Carolina lost track of their replicas for years. Minnesota, Georgia and Hawaii let their bells return to life on the road, lending them out to tour the country promoting various causes. The Nebraska Liberty Bell did some time down in the minors, spending the 2005 season with the Lincoln Saltdogs before it found a worthy home. The District of Columbia proudly displayed its bell until it inexplicably vanished after being moved for a reconstruction project in 1982. It’s still missing.
So, all things considered, there are worse places a Liberty Bell could end up than a firehouse. Those places are parking garages in Wyoming, North Dakota and Kansas. If you know where to look and who to ask, you can visit them in their dens of shame.
But the birthplace of eight presidents didn’t always display their Liberty Bell at the firehouse.
Throughout the summer of 1950, it trekked through all the state’s 38 cities and 95 counties. Before 25,000 revelers, Rosemary Howren — the freshly coronated Miss Liberty — accompanied the bell to kick off Richmond’s recreation week. The crowd was also entertained by waterskiing human pyramids and what the local paper described as pretty aquamaids and their brawny male companions.
The bell dutifully served its nation but came up short. As of July 20th (16 days after the drive officially ended), Virginians had purchased only 67% of the state’s Savings Bond quota. Nationally, Americans exceeded the drive’s 650 million dollar quota by 10%.
A committee appointed by Governor John A. Battle unanimously selected Thomas Jefferson’s plantation home, Monticello, as the Virginia Liberty Bell’s permanent location — a logical move with the public’s best interest in mind, as Monticello hosts four times more visitors than the Capitol.
In a three-way transaction on October 22nd, the Treasury gifted the Virginia Liberty Bell to the governor, who in turn gifted it to Monticello’s stewards, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation. Representing the foundation were board Vice President William Hildreth and Fiske Kimball, an architect who was instrumental in the plantation’s restoration.
John S. Graham, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, consecrated the most sacred American symbol on the most sacred American ground. “To Jefferson, the word liberty was something profoundly sacred — because the idea of liberty, which he so thoroughly understood, was one which guided all his actions throughout his life. For this reason, I can imagine no spot more fitting to serve as the final repository of this Liberty Bell in the state of Virginia than Monticello, and I am proud and happy to see it placed here for the state and all her citizens.”
He went on to echo a common theme of the time: the Liberty Bell as a symbol of the American ideal in the face of a growing Communist threat. “It is my sincere hope that the stream of visitors to this historic shrine will see this Liberty Bell not merely as a reminder of the stirring events of the early days of our Republic, but rather as the living symbol of an idea (for) which the free people of the world are striving today.”
By all contemporaneous accounts, the bell was a welcome gift. News articles reported Monticello had already built a special structure to house the bell, while a photo of the dedication ceremony shows the bell outside of the north terrace.
But after considerable research, Monticello’s resident research librarian, Anna Berkes, could find no evidence of the bell ever being on public display. The few documents she found indicate the bell was stored in the carriage house in the north dependencies, a structure that originally housed Jefferson’s phaeton (an open horse-drawn carriage) and some horses during his lifetime.
In 1959, an Associated Press article reported the estate of the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence no longer had use for the bell and was making the replica available to Albermarle County and the city of Charlottesville.
Charlottesville jumped at the offer, announcing the bell would be housed in the tower of a soon-to-be-built fire station and peal out the 9:00 p.m. curfew for the city’s children.
I spoke with Fire Chief Emeritus Julian Taliaferro, who confirmed the Ridge Street Fire Station, 4.6 miles from Monticello, did ring the curfew alarm from atop the station’s training tower, but not with the Liberty Bell. Firefighters tolled a lighter and smaller bell nightly into the 1970s. When they suspected it wasn’t serving much of a purpose, they quietly stopped ringing curfew. No one noticed.
Volunteer firefighters Sonny Barnett and Jimmy Taylor, a bricklayer by trade, built a handsome pedestal in front of the firehouse where Virginia’s Liberty Bell can be seen (and rung) to this day.
Chief Taliaferro is the first person I’ve met who saw one of the Treasury bells on tour in 1950. He vividly remembered, as a nine-year-old boy, watching it roll into Harrisonburg and collecting a book of savings stamps — the Treasury’s targeted promotion for schoolchildren. When kids collected $18.75 in stamps, they could exchange their book for a $25 Savings Bond.
So now you know why Virginia’s Liberty Bell is stationed at a firehouse. While it’s one of the least-visited, it’s well-loved and tolls every Independence Day at 2:00 PM and on other special occasions.
But who really owns Virginia’s Liberty Bell? On this issue, the fire department and Monticello seem to agree. While neither have record of an official transfer of ownership, possession and intent set the standard. It’s unlikely the foundation will ever want the bell back, and the fire department still carries an insurance policy on it — not a bad idea, as the scrap value alone is $3,300.
So why did Monticello give up the Liberty Bell? Here, truth is more benign than fiction. It seems there was no deep-seated conspiracy to buck the will of the people — rather it was an issue of foundation policy. Then, as now, Monticello’s focus is to minimize modern or non-Jeffersonian-authentic structures or displays.
Despite the pomp of the 1950 ceremony, the Liberty Bell was most likely a gift the estate didn’t want but couldn’t refuse.
So when you’re looking for things to do in Charlottesville, Virginia, stop by TJ’s house for an authentic look back at life on the plantation, and be sure to swing by the Ridge Street Fire Station, give the Liberty Bell a gentle knock with your knuckles, and let freedom ring.
Virginia Liberty Bell replica
Location: Ridge Street Fire Station
203 Ridge Street
Charlottesville, VA 22902
Serial Number: 32
Can I ring it? Yes
Hours: 24/7 (Outdoors)