Plains Folk

Arm of Liberty


“It was a Sunday in the fall of 1971 when fourteen-year-old Dick Woolf and friends, while walking through Island Park of Fargo, North Dakota, stumbled upon a dismembered limb.” I suppose that was the best opening line I ever read in a student history paper, and it came from one of my bright senior seminar students, named Mark Popp. Fortunately, the dismembered arm to which he referred was not that of a living person, but rather that of a statue-the replica of the Statue of Liberty that stands in Fargo, as well as in hundreds of other towns across the United States.

The original Statue of Liberty, as we all learned in school, was dedicated in New York Harbor in 1886 as a gift to the people of the United States from the people of France. It celebrated the friendship of the two peoples and their common values of human liberty. Over the years, however, Lady Liberty came to mean other things. Because of her proximity to Ellis Island, she became a symbol of immigration and the American Dream of newcomers–remember the Emma Lazurus poem inscribed on the base of the statue in 1903, the one that begins, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

During the Cold War, however, the Statue of Liberty acquired another layer of meaning, embracing patriotism and loyalty in the face of the challenge of totalitarian communism. In that spirit a Kansas City businessman and Boy Scout leader named Jack P. Whitaker commenced a campaign for the Boy Scouts to place hundreds of 1/19th scale replicas of the Statue of Liberty in communities across the country. The replicas were 8’4″ tall and composed of copper sections seamed with lead. The cost was $300 apiece to the local scout troops. The inscription included a “pledge of everlasting fidelity and loyalty.”

The Fargo Lions Club decided to help out the campaign by purchasing, using proceeds from a magician show, a statue to be emplaced locally on behalf of the scouts. This was placed on a knoll in Island Park and dedicated on June 23, 1952.

Sadly, Fargo’s Statue of Liberty, like many similar ones in other towns, fell into disrepair worsened by vandalism. People kept climbing it and breaking off the spikes from the crown, and even, in 1971, breaking off the Arm of Liberty itself. This was, perhaps, symptomatic of those times in the 1960s and 1970s, when traditional symbols lacked authority.

In 1984, however, the city parks and recreation department, having located some missing parts of the statue in storage, commenced an effort toward restoration. Dean Bowman received the contract for the restoration work, working some of the dents out of the copper with the putter from his golf bag. The statue, happily, was rededicated in a new location near the Main Avenue Bridge over the Red River in 1987, a year late for the centennial of Lady Liberty. It was a good day, anyway, with about 500 people showing up for the occasion. When the Main Avenue bridge subsequently was replaced, the statue was worked into the design in its own plaza, giving it prominence overlooking the city.

I have encountered Statue of Liberty replicas in good condition in Portis, Kansas, and Chadron, Nebraska. Boy Scout Troop 101 of Cheyenne, Wyoming, maintains a website depicting all known replicas, and according to its listing, the Fargo statue is the only one in North Dakota. The listing is not exhaustive, however, and so it’s possible there are others standing out there. Or, perhaps, reposing in park storage sheds, awaiting their opportunity once again to proclaim liberty throughout the land.

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