Carrying the torch: New Castle, Ellwood City restore Lady Liberty
Wednesday, July 04, 2007

New Castle's "Little Sister of Liberty" is a replica of the original statue of liberty. Two hundred of them were made from 1949 to 1951. It is estimated that less than 100 are left.

By Cristina Rouvalis
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
NEW CASTLE, Pa. -- Here in the "Fireworks Capital of America," the officially trademarked name, crowds gawk at fireworks that are so loud they have tripped the bank alarm.

Or they walk around gleaming Zambelli Square with its star-shaped firecracker lights imported from China.

David Gaibis, Lincoln High School teacher, supervised students whose senior project was to restore Ellwood City's Little Sister.
Click photo for larger image.

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Hear comments about Western Pennsylvania's Little Sister of Liberty statues :

JoAnn McBride, executive director of Lawrence County Tourist Promotion Agency, on the statue in New Castle

David Gaibis, a teacher at Lincoln High School in Ellwood City, remembers taking the statue for granted when he was a student there in the 1970s.

What's often overlooked in this star-spangled frenzy is Lady Liberty, an 8-foot, 4-inch copper replica of the Statue of Liberty.

And no wonder: This statue sits among empty warehouses, and even those motorists who zoom by don't know the story behind this local curiosity, long a footnote in the hometown of the world-renowned Zambelli Fireworks Internationale.

But that was until a Midwestern couple, aficionados of such statues, came to visit last year. They were on a nationwide tour of all the "Little Sisters of Liberty" before ending their road trip at the real Statue of Liberty on Ellis Island.

Turns out, the New Castle statue is part of an elite nationwide sorority. The Boy Scouts of America erected 195 Little Sisters of Liberty in 39 states between 1949 to 1951 under a campaign called "Strengthen the Arm of Liberty."

The only other one recorded in Western Pennsylvania is also in Lawrence County, just 20 minutes away in Ellwood City, one of only six in the state.

The 290-pound statues were made in Chicago for $350 apiece, plus freight costs. How many are remaining is unknown -- some estimate about 100 -- but many were vandalized or taken down after years of neglect. Boy Scout Troop 101 in Cheyenne, Wyo., which restored its statue by recasting it in bronze, has posted photos of surviving Little Sisters nationwide. So far, there are 87 photos up there.

"It blew my mind when I saw all these pictures," said JoAnn C. McBride, executive director of the Lawrence County Tourist Promotion Agency. "Look at all those little Sisters of Liberty."

The statue in New Castle holds her torch up to the tired, the poor and huddled masses -- but also to motorists zipping by this forlorn square, where eight roads spill in.

"Isn't she beautiful?" Ms. McBride asked, pointing to the statue.

The statue is just a few blocks off a newly renovated three-block corridor of Downtown, and Ms. McBride said she hopes that the spiffed-up district will eventually be extended to include the area around the statue.

The statue in New Castle.
Click photo for larger image.
Lady Liberty is not part of the official July 4th celebration that includes a festival and 10 p.m. fireworks display today, as well as an even bigger blast of fireworks on Saturday, July 14. (This place takes fireworks very seriously). But who knows? said Ms. McBride. Lady Liberty might be included in future celebrations.

In 2002, this Little Sister of Liberty didn't look like a beacon of freedom after high winds bent her arm. So the city spent months fixing her sheet copper limb and cleaning her back to an orange-copper finish before putting her back on her pedestal.

Helen Marie Gould, a sales associate for the Salvation Army Thrift Store across the street, missed Lady Liberty when she was gone. "We were guessing that one of the commissioners had her on his front lawn," she quipped.

"It's beautiful," she said. Looking at it on the way to work reminds her of her grandparents who migrated here from Hungary. The only time her pregnant and sick grandmother came up to the deckof the ship -- as it arrived in New York harbor -- was to see the Statue of Liberty as people yelled "The lady, the lady" in every language.

Patti Litwinowicz, a retired teacher, has a gripe about the restored statue. She says city officials faced her the wrong way when they put her back on her pedestal. "If you lived here your whole life, you know that stuff like that is important. And they shouldn't have cleaned it. It should have a patina."

Others drive by it every day without noticing it, Ms. McBride said. "It's there but you don't necessarily see it."

Ditto for the one at Lincoln High School in Ellwood City, a landmark since 1951.

David Gaibis, a government and politics teacher, never gave much thought to the statue as a kid growing up in Ellwood City. "I thought it was part of the property. It just came with the building as far as I knew." He and other kids would play football around it.

Sometimes, the Little Sister of Liberty would get caught in the crossfire of football rivalries between Lincoln High School, home of the Wolverines, and neighboring Riverside High School, home of the Panthers.

"We would paint their stone panther blue," said Mr. Gaibis, a football player in the class of 1975. He never threw the paint, out of fear of their parents' wrath, but he drove the getaway car.

In retaliation, Cougar fans would sometimes throw green paint on Lady Liberty and would put a garbage can on her head. It was '70s-style trash talk.

Mr. Gaibis, the supervisor for senior projects, really never thought much of the statue until a student, Jordan Pishioneri, 18, suggested cleaning it for his project. Mr. Gaibis told him that he should also research the history.

Mr. Pishioneri found the history on the Internet while Ms. McBride was researching the New Castle statue.

The greenish statue, whose spikes have been eroded by the elements, was power-washed -- but not so hard to remove the patina.

"I never knew," Mr. Gaibis said. "There are not many more of her left in the country. I think she is more precious now because of what she stands for."

"I am sure there are many people who don't know how far-reaching this little statue is."

First published on July 3, 2007 at 7:47 pm
To read and see pictures of other Lady Liberties, go to Cristina Rouvalis can be reached at or 412-263-1572.