by Jesica Bi
photography by Katelyn Keeling
A bell is mounted at the front entrance to La Verne City Hall. It is at ground level, in the weather and visible from D Street. It is a famous relation to the original Liberty Bell, even cast by the very same foundry, the White Chapel Foundry in London, as was the famous original on public exhibition in Philadelphia. How it came to La Verne is a victory in itself for those who led the city at the time of America’s bicentennial in 1976.
The original Liberty Bell first rang in Philadelphia, in the Pennsylvania State House, now known as Independence Hall, to assemble citizens to the reading of the Declaration of Independence. The Liberty Bell is known as a symbol representing courage and freedom.
Forward to the bicentennial of the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence. In 1976, 100 duplicates of the Liberty Bell were cast. Each of the 50 states were entitled to receive two bell duplicates. In California, only La Verne and Bakersfield won the liberty bells. “It is my understanding that not all the bells are the same size, that some are smaller,” says La Verne Mayor Don Kendrick. “But the one we have in La Verne—it is the exact replica of the original Liberty Bell that still exists in Philadelphia.” However, though the original Liberty Bell has its historic crack, according to Eric Scherer, community development director city of La Verne, the La Verne bicentennial Liberty Bell does not have a crack, and this is because the original Liberty Bell developed its crack after it was forged.
Scherer says in 1975 the entire city was preparing for the country’s 1976 Bicentennial, and a group formed to plan for the events that would take place for the La Verne celebration. Heading the effort was the chair of the La Verne Bicentennial Committee, Robert G. Harris, owner of Liberty Ford. His dealership was located on the north side of the intersection of Foothill Boulevard and Falcon Street.
Even though two bells were awarded to each state to celebrate the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, they did not come for free. Scherer says, “La Verne received the bell in large part because we were the first to get a down payment for the bell out in the mail. Heading the effort was the chair of the La Verne Bicentennial Committee Robert G. Harris, owner of Liberty Ford. His dealership was located on the north side of the intersection of Foothill Boulevard and Falcon Streets.
Harris approached the city for a loan for the $2,000 down payment in March 1975, and within 48 hours of learning about the opportunity, a check was out in the mail.” Harris promised to repay the funds through a fund raising campaign. Scherer says the Harris approached the City Council again for the remaining balance of $6,631 in April 1975 once the city learned it was awarded the bell.
However, because the bell had to be mounted in a specific way for it to ring, and also to pay for shipping, the total for the bell eventually added up to $17,263. And so the grand bicentennial fundraising campaign started. According to the La Verne Leader, in 1975 members of the Pomona Valley Cities Committee started a $20,000 campaign. It was thoroughly patriotic and community spirited. To start, Harris requested to have the National Freedom Train displayed at the Los Angeles County Fair, which took place in 1975 between Sept. 12 and 28. Harris was also the chairman of the Freedom Train Steering Committee. In addition, Committee members staged a band concert and the annual Fourth of July Fireworks celebration. And a Redwood forest was planted in Las Flores Park.
When the Freedom Train came to town, La Verne’s Liberty Bell was proudly displayed as a part of the exhibition where the NHRA now has its racing venue. Special train tracks were installed to bring the celebratory train to the site. “Our hope is that people will think enough of our bell as a symbol of the nation’s liberty to want to own a part of it,” said Harris in a 1975 La Verne Leader article. People who attended the Los Angeles County Fair were also invited to throw coins into a pool surrounding the Liberty Bell. During fair hours, members of the Bicentennial Committee shared information about the Liberty Bell.
Names of those who made donations of $100 or more are captured today on a bronze plaque in front of the bell: “Through the effort of R. G. Harris, Rick Vanderbeck, La Verne Burns, and other members of the Bicentennial Committee, citizens of La Verne have a lasting symbol of their heritage and freedom. May freedom continue to ring in La Verne and our nation.”
The money slowly came in from the community. By Feb. 19, 1976, the La Verne Bicentennial Committee raised $1,600 through the Freedom Train parked in the Los Angeles County Fair lot. In 1977, a four mile walk called, “Walk for Freedom” was staged in La Verne to help pay for the bell as well. The walk started at the Bonita High School parking lot, traveled to Third Street and Bonita Avenue and then went back to the school. According to the Pomona Progress Bulletin, all participants in the walk had sponsors. McDonald’s stationed its famous Ronald McDonald clown at the starting point to the delight of children. Prizes were offered to children who collected the most money, which were given out at La Verne’s 1977 Fourth of July celebration at Kuns Park.
While today the bell is mounted in front of La Verne City Hall, in the late ‘70s it was mounted to a truck bed and displayed at community related events. The bell was also displayed at La Verne’s schools, where students and visitors were asked to donate to help pay for the bell’s loan. This Bicentennial Committee loan pay back campaign was known as the, “Own A Piece of Liberty.” In addition to this, the campaign also sold medallions and patches that captured the city of La Verne insignia.
“La Verne got the bell, but we still had to pay for the Liberty Bell, and that was paid for by a lot of pennies and nickels and dimes,” says La Verne Mayor Don Kendrick. Donors received a bicentennial certificate for their contributions. Says the excerpt about the Liberty Bell found in the glass cabinet inside La Verne City Hall, “Today the bell serves as a symbol of freedom and reminder to La Verne residents of the city’s participation in the nation’s bicentennial.”
Despite the community spirited effort, by January 1978, La Verne’s City Council realized the fundraising effort was not a complete success. “Unfortunately, the fundraising efforts fell short, and in January 1978, the Council forgave the Committee’s remaining $5,531.
Shortly after, the bell was permanently placed in front of the new City Hall,” says Scherer. Mayor Kendrick says that the bell is now locked so that it will not ring—children coming home from school used to always ring it. The mayor says that on the 250th anniversary, the city plans to ring the bell again.
Harris died at age 91, September 2016. His bicentennial contributions and his association with his Liberty Ford dealership prompts him to be remembered as La Verne’s “Liberty Man.” ■