The Statue of Liberty arrived into New York Harbor on the French steamship Isère in 1885, its pieces packed into crates. Tens of thousands of people welcomed the ship's arrival from the docks.
The Lady Liberty that lives at the Missoula County Fairgrounds, on the other hand, arrived strapped to the bed of a trailer, whole, with a good deal less fanfare, but complete with a fresh new paint job Friday morning.
Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, owns the statue, but it’s been on loan to the fairgrounds since around 1988 or ‘89, he said. His 7-and-a-half-foot tall statue wasn’t a gift from the French, but rather the remnants of a battle with the city of Missoula over the definition of a business sign.
The earliest known location of the statue is Arizona, but it made a few stops before the fairgrounds.
“There was a guy by the name of Ron Morgan who owned a video rental store about a block away from the southside Post Office,” Marbut recalled. “Ron was traveling in Arizona, and he’s a patriotic guy like me. (He) bought it, hauled it back to Montana and put it up on the roof of his store.”
Marbut’s love of country is obvious from his red, white and blue custom-painted ‘76 Dodge pickup — original owner, he notes — which rumbled through the gates of the fairgrounds a few minutes before the truck towing his refinished Lady Liberty.
While she isn’t colored green by a natural copper patina like her big sister in New York, she does have a durable powder coat paint job — a big step up from the weathered cracks covering her before restoration.
“The old paint was flaking off of it, and what was left was some kind of black undercoat that was looking pretty ugly,” Marbut said while watching her be reinstalled.
While now she stands on a pedestal between the United States and Montana flagpoles, she once stood atop Ron Morgan’s video rental store, though Marbut couldn’t recall its name. She didn’t last long there. Soon after erecting the torch-bearing lady, Marbut said the city took issue with its placement.
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As Marbut tells it, “Ron got a letter from the planning department saying, ‘You have a business there, and it attracts attention to your business, therefore it’s a sign and you don’t have a sign permit for it, and besides that we’re not gonna give you one so you gotta take it down.’”
While that may not have been the actual wording of the letter, Marbut does have records of the city’s lawsuit against Morgan to have the statue removed. But Marbut had a plan to keep Lady Liberty alive.
In May of 1988, Marbut purchased the statue from Morgan. His plan was to be the owner of the statue, while letting it stay atop the video rental store.
“I said to Ron, ‘Sell me that statue and I’ll leave it right where it is, and I’ll write a letter to the planning department telling them I have no business there, and so it's not advertising a business, therefore it’s a First Amendment exercise, so get lost.’ And so he did, and I did, and everything was fine for about 10 days.”
From there, Marbut said he was told the city contacted Morgan’s landlord, who then convinced Morgan the statue had to go. Since he had bought the statue from Morgan, Marbut was left to find a new home for her. Fortunately, his friend and former fairgrounds manager Sam Yewusiak welcomed it.
“He wrote me and said he’d love to have it here, and I said, ‘Sure, why not.’”
And that’s where she has remained since the late ‘80s, except for the trip she took out to the Wye for her refinishing. The new paint job, done by Professional Construction Services, is the first work done on the statue since she arrived at the fairgrounds.
Marbut said he reached out to the U.S. National Parks Service head at the Statue of Liberty for input on color choice, but received no response. So, he settled on “Navajo copper,” which may be a little darker than the Lady in the Harbor, but he’s still satisfied and glad it’s back in time for the fair.
“If you’ve been in a paint store, you’ve seen the signs that say ‘men may not pick out colors without wife’s permission.’ Well that’s for me, so I’m more interested in what other people think of the color than what I think of it.”