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100-year-old statue atop Civil War memorial in Wichita comes down for repairs

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013, at 7:32 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013, at 8:24 p.m.

After 100 years of holding aloft her metallic banner of freedom on the south lawn of the Sedgwick County Historic Courthouse – and 13 years since her last restoration – the lady known as “Liberty” has gone to the statue hospital.

“Liberty,” the 13-foot-tall statue that usually occupies the pinnacle of the Soldiers and Sailors Civil War Monument, was carried out stretcher-fashion on a flatbed trailer this week and will undergo some needed repair work at the shops of Russell-Marti Conservation Services in California, Mo.

The monument the statue stands atop was dedicated in 1913 to honor the then-dwindling population of veterans of the Civil War, said Dora Timmerman, chairwoman of a campaign that renovated the monument in 2000.

The memorial is “one of the most impressive in the nation,” she said. “It’s a piece of history, particularly of our history, because Kansas was so involved in the Civil War.”

Timmerman said she has talked with the Russell-Marti team, and they’ve told her the crack at the base of the statue “is a minor thing, but you can’t leave it alone or it will become major.”

She said the same experts work with Wichita State University to maintain and repair the statuary on campus.

The “Liberty” statue was designed and built by the W.H. Mullins Co. of Salem, Ohio.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the company specialized in making metal statues for Civil War memorials across the country. “Liberty” was a popular standard design that came in 10- and 13-foot versions.

Eric Cale, director of the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum, said the monument is an important piece of a city rich in heritage tracing to the Civil War.

Wichita and Sedgwick County didn’t exist during the Civil War. At the time, the land was held in trust for the Osage and other tribes, he said.

But after the war, veterans – mostly Union ones – streamed to Kansas more than any other state, attracted by the opportunity the frontier had to offer, Cale said.

“It just made sense to come to Kansas,” he said. “It was the place where it was all happening. It was the place to go and get away from all the old, bad memories of the war.”

The Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization for veterans, was enormously influential in Wichita. There were already two small Civil War monuments in the city, but “they wanted a lasting tribute to the conflict,” Cale said.

Timmerman said the sense of urgency to do that grew in the early 1900s because “people were realizing if they did not build the monument at that time, the soldiers would no longer be around.”

A local tax was raised and the monument built at a cost of $25,000 – approximately the equivalent of a $550,000 project today, according to inflation conversion factors published by Oregon State University.

The Soldiers and Sailors Monument became the “grand central monument” for the city, Cale said.

Although it was once a dominant part of the streetscape, the Historic Courthouse and its accompanying monument have since been eclipsed by the larger government structures built around them, including the 11-story County Courthouse across the street and 13-story City Hall across the intersection of Central and Main.

Most of the monuments to veterans of later wars have been concentrated in a memorial park on the east bank of the Arkansas River.

But even so, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument still stirs emotion in the local-history community.

Timmerman said she became involved in the effort to restore the monument 13 years ago as part of a Smithsonian Institution survey of the nation’s war memorials, overseeing 75 volunteer surveyors in three Kansas counties.

The surveyors found that the Soldiers and Sailors Monument was in a state of severe disrepair.

Little had been done to take care of it since it was built. And what work had been done was inexpert and in some cases did more harm than good, Timmerman said.

A committee was formed and worked with former County Clerk Don Brace to recondition the monument at a cost of $230,000, a combination of county and donated funds, she said.

“It was a joy to work on, one of the big things I’m proud of in my life,” Timmerman said.

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.

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