The Statue of Liberty of Lake Mendota

Feb 8, 2019 0 comments


This is what will happen when the polar ice melts and sea level rises. Well, not really. It’s just a continuation of a prank that started forty years ago.

In 1978, a student party named Pail and Shovel swept the students election at the University of Wisconsin. During their campaign, the party made absurd promises that included installing escalators on Bascom Hill, painting the curbs fluorescent so drunk students could find their way home from the bars, flooding Camp Randall for faux naval battles and having all deans stuffed and mounted. None of these ever materialized, of course. The party itself was named after its campaign promise to “convert the UW’s budget into pennies for students to collect on Library Mall with pails and shovels.” One of their promises they did make good on was bringing the Statue of Liberty to Wisconsin.

The following winter, in 1979, Pail and Shovel erected a gigantic replica of the Statue of Liberty’s head and torch on the frozen surface of Lake Mendota, in Madison city, creating the illusion that Lady Liberty was emerging from the lake’s bottom. Party leaders Leon Varjian and Jim Mallon spent $4,000 on the Styrofoam structure, a stunt that nearly got them kicked out of office. The sculpture became an instant hit, but arsonist burned it down within the first year.


The original structure in 1979.

The next year, 1980, a fireproof version was installed and the year next as well. But then state regulators demanded the structure be removed from the ice. It continued to appear on the lake occasionally through 2010, after which it stopped.

This year, Wisconsin Union brought Lady Liberty back to Lake Mendota to kick off its annual Winter Carnival, after two decades continuing a tradition that started forty years ago. This time, the structure is made of inflatable plastic. Plastic requires less space to store, compared to the Styrofoam version, and could be inflated and installed faster. Officials hope to bring her back next year as well as part of the annual Winter Carnival tradition.

In another stunt, the Pail and Shovel Party put a flock of one thousand pink plastic flamingos on Bascom Hill in the fall of 1979. Within hours most of the birds were stolen and appeared on lawns throughout the city. Although many students were amused at Pail and Shovel pranks, some were angered at the misuse of student fees. Some sixty students demanded their student fees be returned, and Pail and Shovel responded by issuing sixty checks for ten cents each. Though the Pail and Shovel Party weren’t re-elected for a third term, their pranks live on in stories passed down from students at UW-Madison.


The Statue of Liberty in 2009.


The Statue of Liberty this year, 2019.


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