Madawaska's recreation liberty bell is now housed in its plexi-glass gazebo at the site of the Acadian Landing in St. David. Credit: Hannah Catlin / St. John Valley Times

MADAWASKA, Maine — If visitors to Madawaska are wondering why there’s a hand-carved, wooden re-creation of the Liberty Bell at the historic Acadian Landing site, they can thank the town’s high school students and their love of a summer camp game from the 1970s.

The bell, which was crafted in 1976 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, was moved out of the town’s Bicentennial Park earlier this month after a petition from Madawaska Middle/High School students in July asking the town to build a gaga pit in the park.

While the events may seem incongruous, the Liberty Bell has been damaged for many years, and the location where it once stood is one of the only spots in the park where the ground is level enough to install a gaga pit. For Madawaska Parks & Recreation, it was two wins for the price of one: an opportunity to clean up the park and to keep the town’s young people active and engaged.

Gaga has been the sport of choice in Madawaska physical education classes for the past three or four years, since now-retired teacher Tom Gerard introduced the game to his students.

Gaga is played in an octagonal court hemmed in by short walls. The rules are a hybrid of foursquare and dodgeball: players move freely around the pit, bouncing the ball and trying to slap it between bounces to hit other players below the knee. If you get hit, you’re out.

The game’s origins are uncertain, though its popularity in the U.S. certainly began at Jewish summer camps in the 1970s. The most popular theory is that Israeli camp counselors brought the game to the United States, though some more recent gaga scholarship claims an American counselor, Steven Steinberg, invented the game in 1975 in Maryland.

Since then, it’s become something of a playground cult classic.

“The biggest thing that I’ve seen about it is that it levels the playing field. It’s not just the jocks that win, the young ladies can win just as easily and there’s different strategies people take,” Gerard said. “Even the new phys ed teacher is playing it all the time … that’s really cool.”

The school and the recreation department share joint custody of the town’s only gaga pit. But this summer, Gerard approached Madawaska Selectman Chris Braley to propose bringing gaga to a public park, so kids can access the game all day, year-round. Braley was interested in the idea, Gerard said, but asked the kids to reach out and advocate for the project.

By the end of the school year, more than 100 students had signed a petition requesting the town to build a pit at the Bicentennial Park — the  total enrollment at the middle/high school is roughly 150.

The board of selectmen received the petition in July and approved a $2,000 expenditure from the Parks & Recreation budget to buy and install the gaga pit. At the meeting, the selectmen came up with the idea of using the project to justify relocating the damaged Liberty Bell.

This wasn’t the first time the bell has had to find a new home. The attraction has been wandering the town’s facilities since it was first built as a Madawaska Historical Society parade float decoration in the 1970s. For a while, it was housed at the society’s historic one-room schoolhouse, before making the journey to the park in 2015.

The Parks & Recreation department suspects excessive heat in the Liberty Bell’s plexi-glass enclosure caused major cracks in the wood that sent the bell crashing to the gazebo floor.  Credit: Hannah Catlin / St. John Valley Times

But, like the actual Liberty Bell, Madawaska’s bell was doomed to crack. When the historical society moved the bell to the park, volunteers built it a plexi-glass enclosure to protect it. The structure had the opposite effect.

“It was like a sauna in there,” Madawaska Parks & Recreation Director Sam Cyr said. “Throughout the summers and throughout the years in the park, the bell was made out of wood so it dried up … It fell off whatever was holding it, so it hit the floor of the gazebo and cracked.”

On top of that, the plexi glass that surrounded the broken bell was slowly covered in obscene graffiti.

On Oct. 12, after years of disrepair, the Madawaska Historical Society took the bell back to its own property. The public works department lifted the entire structure, including the concrete foundation, out of the ground and rolled it slowly down Main Street. The mile-long journey took roughly an hour, Cyr said, and the front loader was moving “zero miles an hour.”

The bell is still broken, but now on display at the Acadian Landing: the location where Acadians first arrived in the St. John Valley in 1785 after British forces chased them out of Nova Scotia during the French and Indian War.

Madawaska Historical Society has no plans yet to restore or relocate the bell, president Fran Gendreau said. With its limited budget, the organization is focusing on its other priorities.

Meanwhile, the gaga pit is set to arrive in the spring of 2022. The rec department is considering the former home of the Liberty Bell as well as a second location at Fox Park down the street for the gaga pit.

It will be rewarding to see young people enjoying the parks again, Gerard said, and gaga is a sport that encourages good traits.

It’s self-refereed, so players are peer-pressured into following the rules rather than breaking them. Gaga is competitive, but gentler and less violent than dodgeball. It’s a game that encourages diverse styles of play that compliment different personalities and abilities.

Plus, it’s a lot of fun.

“When you get a group of really educated kids who are athletic, it gets intense,” Gerard said. “It’s wicked intense.”

Hannah Catlin

Hannah Catlin is a reporter at the St. John Valley Times/Fiddlehead Focus in Madawaska, Maine.