Lady Liberty's Little Sisters

All across America, towns are shining up a symbol of freedom—200 little sisters of liberty that were dedicated from 1949 to 1951.

Marti Attoun

Copyright American Profile magazine, September 7, 2003

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All across America, towns are shining up a symbol of freedom—200 little sisters of liberty that were dedicated from 1949 to 1951. After decades of neglect, these replicas of the Statue of Liberty are starring again in scores of communities united by pride and love of country.

The 8-foot-4-inch copper statues grace parks, main streets, schools, city halls, courthouses, and capitals. Gifts to towns from the Boy Scouts of America to celebrate their 40th anniversary theme “Strengthen the Arm of Liberty,” the statues are standing up for freedom once again.

For awhile, though, it was different. Fifty years of weather and vandalism had claimed some. Others had been sold for scrap or stashed in storage. But now a national treasure hunt is under way to find and save the little landmarks.

Nationwide, about 100 little liberties have been accounted for by SOS! (Save Outdoor Sculpture!), a joint project of Heritage Preservation and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Half need urgent repairs. Documentation is fuzzy on the number of statues originally placed, but estimates are that at least 200 were dedicated.

“These statues reflect a piece of American history and have real value for the community’s history,” says Susan Nichols, director of SOS! “A lot of local history is lost or forgotten when these sculptures are gone.”

“Given all the events (since Sept. 11, 2001), it became a rallying point for our community to fix the statue,” says Robyn Stewart, public information officer in Leavenworth, Kan. (pop. 35,420). Adds Jon Goodman, assistant city manager, “This is a military town so we’re a pretty patriotic bunch.”

Leavenworth raised $30,000 to restore its statue and 11-point star limestone base. Schoolchildren staged a patriotic program and the high school graphics class held a contest to design a brochure. A special-issue postmark commemorated the rededication of the statue last July 4.

Mason City, Iowa, (pop. 29,172), rededicated its refurbished statue last Sept. 11 in a ceremony that also paid tribute to the city’s firemen, police officers, and other public servants.

“She really looks good and we moved her to a more visible spot,” says Beth Enright, city grant administrator. The statue stands in Central Park in the heart of downtown.

Tony Rajer, a conservator in Madison, Wis., who has restored several of the statues, didn’t hesitate to work on Mason City’s. He had just spent several weeks volunteering at New York City’s Ground Zero and the project helped heal his spirit, he says.

The little Statues of Liberty stand outside the American Legion post in Fairmont, W.Va. (pop. 19,097); in a road divider in Loveland, Colo., (pop. 50,608) framed by the Rocky Mountains; on courthouse lawns in North Platte, Neb., (pop. 23,878) and Miami, Okla. (pop. 13,704); and in dozens of other towns.

“I love these little ladies,” Rajer says. “The statue is symbolic of all that the terrorists wanted to destroy. They didn’t destroy it.”

On Memorial Day 2002, residents of St. John, Kan., (pop. 1,318) welcomed their newly refurbished Miss Liberty with a parade, patriotic speeches, and a banquet. Back on her pedestal, Miss Liberty is fringed with park benches, red oak, and ash trees.

“Even as a kid, I’d walk around the square and look at her,” says Johnna Stanford. “Of course, she looked so big then. And when we’d come into town, there she was to greet us.”

That community pride and participation is what conservator Randal Julian enjoys most about his work. “We’re not just fixing a statue, but we’re bringing a community together,” says Julian, of Wichita, Kan. Now restoring his fourth statue, he’s made molds of her torch-carrying arm and spiked crown, the parts most susceptible to damage.

“This face isn’t as mature as the real Liberty. It’s rounder and more like a little girl’s,” Julian notes as he gazes at the statue he just completed for El Dorado, Kan. (pop. 12,057).

The original project was launched in 1949 by the late Jack Whitaker, a Kansas City, Mo., Scout volunteer. The stamped copper statues, built around a wooden frame, were made by Friedley-Voshardt in Chicago and sold for $300 to $350. Each town provided its own base, so total height of the statues varies.

According to the Boy Scouts of America National Council in Irving, Texas, statues were placed in communities in 39 states, plus Guam, Puerto Rico, the Canal Zone, and the Philippines. In Kansas, especially, Scouts embraced the project and presented at least 26 statues throughout the state.

The replicas were mass-produced and are not considered great art, Julian says. But the little Statues of Liberty represent great values and that’s why Americans are rallying to save them.

“Any time there’s a crisis in the world, people gather around this icon,” says Tom Ansart, who helped raised $6,000 for a temporary fix of the statue at Alki Beach Park in Seattle. He and his brothers own Liberty Deli across from the statue.

“After 9/11, people left firemen’s hats and all kinds of little tributes and photos. The little statue has special significance here,” Ansart says. “Seattle was founded here and its original name was New York-Alki.”

Seattle residents now are raising $25,000 to recast their statue in bronze.

The freedom that Miss Liberty symbolizes sparks strong feelings in Barbara Redburn. She and her husband, Howard, financed the statue renovation in El Dorado, Kan.

“I’ve always cherished my freedom. My husband and I both grew up when the flag was so important. It still gives me goosebumps,” Mrs. Redburn, 72, says. For years, the Redburns have promoted displaying the flag and have given “Our Flag” prints to a local cafe and museum. Mrs. Redburn even decked out as Miss Liberty for the Possum Run parade last summer in Cambridge, Kan. (pop. 103).

“My husband’s brother talks about coming home from India after World War II and seeing the Statue of Liberty,” Mrs. Redburn says. “His heart turned over. He was so emotional.”

Kingman, Kan., (pop. 3,387) has a campaign under way to raise funds to refurbish its statue and to incorporate it with a veterans memorial. And in Cheyenne, Wyo., (pop. 53,011), Leland Duck, 15, has raised $2,000 toward a $15,000 goal to restore his hometown’s statue for his Eagle Scout project.

“After 9/11, I felt it was time to relive the Boy Scout campaign,” Duck says. He and his family visited and photographed 17 statues on summer vacations, which inspired his Scout Troop 101 to begin an online scrapbook of the statues.

“It’s a neat project and in the last year and a half, people have been great to send in these photos,” says Kevin Rice, a Scout volunteer who set up the scrapbook website. “Some people will say, ‘I’ve lived in this town all my life and never even noticed the statue until now.’”

But that’s the point. The revival of interest recalls what Jack Whitaker’s promotion literature—back in 1949—claimed: “Americans, more than ever before, need to be reminded that freedom, like life itself, is preserved only through vigilance and care.” As true today as it was then—and always has been.

Marti Attoun is a frequent contributor to American Profile