Saturday, May 6, 2017

When the Liberty Bell Visited Grinnell...

Like everyone else, I first saw the Liberty Bell in person when I visited Independence Hall—in my case, on a school visit in the 1950s. Nowadays the Liberty Bell can only be viewed at Independence Mall, but it may surprise some readers to learn that it was not always this way. Several times in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the famous bell went on long journeys: to New Orleans in 1885, Chicago in 1893, Atlanta in 1895, Charleston in 1902, Boston in 1903, and to St. Louis in 1904.  In 1915 the Bell made one last journey, this time going the farthest west ever, reaching San Francisco in July, 1915 to help mark the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. When the Liberty Bell made its epic trip across the country, Grinnell was one of the lucky cities where the special train bearing the bell stopped long enough for citizens to admire—and perhaps even touch—this famous symbol of American independence. And it is that 1915 visit that forms the subject of this Grinnell Story.
The route west of the Liberty Bell, July, 1915 (
Proposals to send the Liberty Bell across the continent appeared even before the Panama Exposition opened in San Francisco in February, 1915, but fears about potential damage to the cracked bell frustrated most early efforts. Only after the May 7 sinking of the liner Lusitania and the vocal support from President Woodrow Wilson and former President Theodore Roosevelt did the proposed adventure become a reality. The loss of American lives in the sinking—the United States had not yet entered the war—aroused patriotic sentiment, and made the proposed trip of the Liberty Bell across the country almost inevitable.

Once the decision was made, officials had to address the very real problem of how to transport the bell safely. Critics complained that previous journeys had harmed the bell, perhaps even enlarging its famous crack. Consequently, officials at the Pennsylvania Railroad felt pressure to provide maximum security to the independence icon. The result, rushed because of the delay in deciding on the trip, was a "Liberty Bell Special" train, which, according to Stephen Fried, "would be a private, all-steel train with luxurious Pullman cars—sleepers, a dining car and a sitting car—the very best the 'Pennsy' had to offer." The Bell itself would occupy a specially-built gondola car, upon which was constructed a wooden yoke with the inscription, "Proclaim Liberty—1776," visible atop the bell. Fears that the Bell's famous crack would open wider obliged experts to replace the clapper with a metal "spider" to improve stability. The car also included lights that would make the Bell visible even as the train continued its trek through the night-time darkness of the American land mass.
The Liberty Bell arrives at unidentified city, July, 1915 (
When word of the Bell's proposed journey went public, politicians all across the country engaged in a noisy scrum as localities and rail lines campaigned to get a place on the itinerary. Grinnell joined the conversation at the initiative of M. J. Douglas, Grinnell agent of the Rock Island Railroad. In late April Douglas circulated around Grinnell a petition addressed to the Philadelphia mayor, asking that the Rock Island line carry the bell beyond Chicago. Telegrams from the Grinnell Commercial Club, the mayor and city council, the principal and faculty of both the high school and the college, and state Senator H. W. Spaulding all urged "that the famous bell be routed through Grinnell and time allowed for a short stop here." Numerous other localities also pressed their cases, but within a month good news appeared in the Grinnell Herald: "Liberty Bell Will Stop Ten Minutes" in Grinnell, the newspaper announced. According to the Chicago Tribune, whose reporting the Herald borrowed, the Liberty Bell Special would depart Chicago early in the morning of July 7, stop at Peoria for an hour, then on to Rock Island for 15 minutes, Davenport for 30 minutes, Iowa City for 15 minutes, Marengo for 15 minutes (later reduced to 5 minutes), and reach Grinnell at 3:50 PM, stopping for ten minutes before moving on to Des Moines for a five-hour visit.
Grinnell Herald May 21, 1915
The weather on the appointed day was less than wonderful. According to a newspaper report, the previous day's heavy rains and the continuing damp cast an unwelcome and dim light over the town. Nevertheless, the special train arrived in Grinnell right on time (3:47 on the new schedule). The Grinnell Herald observed that "the station platform was crowded as the Liberty Bell special came thundering in. The train pulled past the station and stopped with the car bearing the bell right across the Broad Street crossing." With all Grinnell businesses closed at 4:30 PM to allow everyone to view the spectacle, the crowd that gathered around the train was impressive. The Des Moines Register reported that some 3,000 people turned out in Grinnell, which would mean most of the town's 1910 population of 5,036. Of course there were plenty of visitors from other towns, riding into Grinnell for what might amount to their only chance ever to view the famous bell; even so, no one in Grinnell on that day could have been unaware of the arrival of the Liberty Bell.
A Child Touches the Liberty Bell, Moline, IL, July 7, 1915
In the original plan, direct access to the bell was supposed to be rare, intended mainly for the blind and disabled. But in Grinnell, as elsewhere, "many people clambered aboard the gondola car to look more closely upon the bell and to touch it...Many children were handed up by their parents, in order that in years to come they might be able to say that their hands had touched the Liberty Bell." Philadelphia officials had prepared a printed brochure about the Liberty Bell which was to be distributed to visitors as the train made its way westward ("compliments of the City of Philadelphia"). According to newspaper reports, in Iowa City "each child was given a pamphlet with a history of the bell, an American flag, and a card and button with a picture of the bell." Perhaps some Grinnellians received such mementoes when the train stopped in Grinnell, but the newspaper made no mention of them, nor have I found any extant examples in local archives.
Liberty Bell brochure intended to be given out as a memento of the 1915 trip
Too soon the train was ready to depart, and, as the Grinnell band played, "the train moved out, and amid the waving of hats and final cheers the Liberty Bell slipped behind a box car and was lost to view" (Grinnell Herald July 9, 1915).
News of the Liberty Bell's journey attracted various causes that hoped to capitalize upon the publicity attaching to the event. One of the most famous appropriations of the event was the "Woman's Liberty Bell," a replica of the Liberty Bell which circulated through Pennsylvania in an effort to get women's suffrage enacted. Its clapper chained to the bell, the Woman's Liberty Bell would not ring, partisan literature proclaimed, until the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteeing women the vote was enacted.
Circular of the Woman's Liberty Bell (
In Grinnell it was not women's suffrage but pacifism that seized on the Liberty Bell's journey. In late June, the Grinnell Herald announced that a "Peace Pageant," originally planned as part of the July 4th celebrations, would now be hitched to the Liberty Bell visit to Grinnell. An article about the pageant in the Ottumwa newspaper attributed to Mrs. H. S. Conard (Laetitia Moon Conard) responsibility for overall direction of the peace pageant. But the Grinnell Herald did not mention Conard, even though the newspaper identified some fifteen women (mostly) as organizers and directors of the pageant. Among those identified by name in the Grinnell paper were Wilma Rayburn, a local attorney; Fannie Buchanan, widely known for her songs and musical pageants; and Mrs. Joel Stewart, whose husband was a generous supporter of Grinnell.
Ottumwa Tri-Weekly Courier, July 3, 1915, p. 8
Plans called for organizers to lead a march directly from the railroad, once the Liberty Bell train departed Grinnell. "From the station everyone is requested to go direct to Ward Field [at the College] for the Liberty and Peace Pageant, which will commence immediately after the Liberty Bell leaves," the newspaper reported. As it turned out, the previous day's rain had made Ward Field a muddy mess, and organizers therefore transferred proceedings to the Colonial Theater, to which destination the parade moved as soon as the train was out of sight.

Costumed heralds led the way, followed by "James Ashing [dressed] as Uncle Sam, and Dorothy Fry and Julia Cratty as pennant bearers." The Grinnell band, the local chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic and its auxiliary, the Woman's Relief Corps, were next, after which a series of "symbolic groups" took their places in the march. "Children of the Nations," carrying flags of peace and national flags, were next, after which came "Peace...represented by Mrs. Homer Rivers with attendants: Joy [Miss Kate Rogers], Plenty [Miss Lillie Gove], Industry [Miss Nellie Fraser], [and] Health [Miss Helen Stewart]." The Boy Scouts, outfitted to represent William Penn (played by Roger Preston) and other Quakers, marched in the company of an "Indian Chief" (Carl Somers) and "other Indians" (Frank Almy; Donald Almy; Kenneth Ferguson; and Milton Donnelly).  Mrs. F. J. Kiesel was cast as "Liberty," surrounded by costumed representatives of America, Japan, Russia, Norway, France, Germany, Ireland and Holland. Gladys Cessna was set to the role of Columbia (a common name applied to the United States at the time), accompanied by 48 girls, each representing a state, the shield of which she carried. 

Once gathered at the theatre, the crowd witnessed the pageant program, which began with the band playing "Stars and Stripes Forever." Columbia was then crowned "Gem of the Ocean" while the children representing the 48 states sang. Each nation's representative then did reverence to Liberty, while Mrs. Kiesel sang a solo ("The Glad Land Song," according to the newspaper, but I could not find any record of such a song). The Boy Scouts then presented a series of tableaux devoted to "Signing of the Peace Treaty," featuring William Penn and Indians. The Camp Fire Girls also got into the act, singing a "Floral March," after which Mrs. Rivers sang "America the Beautiful," then still a new and relatively unknown song. A choir composed of high school students and members of the college Glee Club sang the newly-composed "Hear, Hear, Ye Nations," after which a final "March of the nations" was enacted while the audience sang "America," which was then the de facto national anthem (until the adoption of the Star Spangled Banner in 1931).
Lyrics to "Hear, hear, O ye nations," words by Frederick L. Hosmer (1913) (
Peace pageants appeared elsewhere in the US in these years, but the available records provide no clue to the origins of the Grinnell event. Clearly the pageant aimed to keep the United States out of World War I, by this date already a bloody quagmire. And perhaps the Grinnell demonstration contributed to the reluctance with which Americans viewed the war.

Certainly, both before and after the event, the Grinnell Herald provided plenty of coverage to the pageant, devoting more column inches to it than to the Liberty Bell visit itself. Indeed, as I investigated the appearance of the Liberty Bell in Grinnell, I was struck by how little evidence of its visit survives. Unlike many other stops along the journey, the local newspaper published no photograph of the bell or the citizens gathered around it. Of the oral histories touching this period and now available, not one mentions the Liberty Bell; of the dozen scrapbooks devoted to these years that I examined, none includes a photograph or news story about the Bell. And apparently no Liberty Bell mementoes survive in local archives.
Liberty Special Arrives at Ft. Wayne, IN, July 6, 1915
Allen County-Ft. Wayne Historical Society (
After Grinnell, the Liberty Bell Special continued its somewhat circuitous journey westward. Des Moines established a blocks-long queue for visitors, who numbered 75,000, according to the Des Moines Register. The train then moved west, continuing to attract crowds, and only once apparently encountered any sign of opposition when some youths in Walla Walla, Washington were reported to have thrown stones. Finally, the Bell arrived in San Francisco, where it attracted throngs, eager to see and touch this well-known symbol of American independence.
Denison Review, August 11, 1915
As the Panama Exposition drew to a close in late November, the Liberty Bell Special train embarked on the long trip home. Pursuing a different route, the train passed through New Mexico and Arizona (new to the Union in 1912), then across Texas. At El Paso, 25,000 people gathered to catch a glimpse of the relic. The bell moved across the plains, then began the trip north, reaching its Philadelphia home November 25. Having logged thousands of miles, the Liberty Bell had shown its face to millions, the last time the famous bell would travel beneath those spacious skies and through those amber waves of grain.
The return route of the Liberty Bell, December, 1915 (
PS. As I mentioned, Grinnell seems not to have any evidence of the 1915 visit of the Liberty Bell, so if readers of this blog have (or know of the existence of) any photographs of the event or any copies of the specially-prepared handout or any other memento of the visit, I hope that they will contribute that news, and perhaps make those materials available for scanning by the Poweshiek History Preservation Project. It's a moment in local history that deserves to be remembered and, if possible, better documented.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, in regards to any mementoes of the Liberty grandmother grew up in Trinity, Texas..Angelina County..she always had this small hand bell of the Liberty Bell. She always told me that when she was a child, "the train" threw bells out for kids and she got one. I would say the bell plus handle is about 4 inches tall and about a half dollar size in is made of pewter. I was lucky enough that she gave it to me before she passed away. I believe she was born in 1911.