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Monday, December 6, 2010

When the Liberty Bell Came to Memphis

Posted By on Mon, Dec 6, 2010 at 3:32 PM

You wouldn't think that the folks who own the Liberty Bell would send it all over the country aboard a train. After all, it's already been cracked once.

But in 1904, they sent it all the way from Philadelphia to the St. Louis World's Fair, making various stops along the way so people could admire it. That particular tour didn't include Memphis. Then as now, it seems, we get left out of a lot of things.

In 1915, however, the famous bell was carried about the "Freedom Train" to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, and on its return journey it did indeed make an early-morning stop in Memphis at the old Poplar Street Depot downtown. The date was Saturday, November 20, 1915, if you want to mark it on your calendar. Your Ask Vance calendar, I mean.

My pal Paul Coppock wrote about this day: "Confederate veterans formed the guard of honor. The biggest unit in the parade was formed by 12,000 city school children, almost every one of them carrying a flag. They sang, 'Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean' as they passed the bell."

It's hard to believe that 100,000 people — which would have been just about every man, woman, and child in Memphis back then — would jam downtown to see such a thing, but that's what the newspapers reported. Some in the crowd even demanded to touch the famous bell, and you can imagine how curators would feel about such things today, but anyone who wanted could get close enough to touch it, caress, and do anything short of taking a big gong to it.

Newspapers later proclaimed that some people actually managed to kiss the bell, and "afterwards were seen with a radiant glow on their faces, indicating that one of the ambitions of their lives had been satisfied."

My goodness. I have to confess that I have many ambitions of my life, some of them seemingly unattainable unless I recover my lost fortune, but kissing the Liberty Bell has never been one of them.

In the Lauderdale Library, I turned up an old "real-photo" postcard (shown here) showing the bell in Memphis. What surprised me was how it was carried aboard the train — just left out in the open, mounted on a flatcar with some kind of tiny umbrella over it, but otherwise exposed to the elements and left to catch all sorts of dirt and bugs as it rumbled along the tracks.

I know this photo was taken in Memphis, and not at one of the many other stops along the 1915 tour, because barely visible at the bottom of the picture is a schoolchild carrying a huge banner reading "Maury." Readers today may not remember it, but the magnificent old building that stood at 272 North Bellevue was one of our city's most distinctive schools, built in an overblown Beaux Arts style. In fact, we copied that style for the northwest wing of the Lauderdale Mansion — the only part of our home not presently covered in vinyl siding.

But times changed, busing took away most of Maury's students, and the wonderful structure was demolished about 15 years ago. The only trace of it is a grassy lot and some crumbling concrete steps.

Regarding the Liberty Bell, despite its rather careless method of transportation, it somehow made its way back to Philadelphia, and has never left home again.

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