Seeing the famous faces in light of history

Mount Rushmore

January 27, 2008|By Christopher Reynolds | Christopher Reynolds,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Start with Rushmore, which gets the better morning light. It's an easy 24-mile drive from Rapid City, S.D., (where the airport is) and only three miles from the ticky-tacky tourist town of Keystone just down the hill. If you show up early enough, you'll get a shaded parking place.

From the Grand View Terrace, you can follow the half-mile loop trail that takes you to the base of the mountain and the sculptor's studio. As you move, the clouds drift and the sun advances, the faces change.

In the evening presentation, the narrator emphasizes the four presidents' persistence amid hardship. It ends with a gathering onstage of the members of the audience who were or are in the military. As they line up, with a patriotic hymn swelling and those four great faces lighted behind them, you might feel a lump in your throat. It's no wonder that the year after the Sept. 11 attacks, the number of visitors here increased more than 400,000, nearly 15 percent.

That symbolic power, said Judy Olson, the memorial's interpretation chief, has made it "a very political place" since its beginnings, when the sculptor raised a small ruckus by choosing to include Teddy Roosevelt along with the more venerated 18th- and 19th-century heroes Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. These days, Olson said, dissent more often comes from American Indians who believe the sculpture should never have been undertaken in the first place.

Their argument is simple: An 1868 treaty with the U.S. government guaranteed that the Lakota could keep the Black Hills. But once gold was found and confirmed in 1874 by Lt. Col. George Custer, the U.S. government and prospectors grabbed the land back and forced the Lakota elsewhere.

This land-grab history poses public relations challenges for park superintendent Gerard Baker, whose own family tree stems from the Mandan and Hidatsa peoples of North Dakota. And sculptor Gutzon Borglum's resume poses another such challenge.

If you rely on the pamphlet published by the Mount Rushmore History Association, you get most of Borglum's story: a smart, talented and stubborn boy, born in 1867 in Idaho to a big immigrant family from Denmark.

But there is more. As Howard and Audrey Karl Shaff write in their biography, Six Wars at a Time, Borglum's father, a doctor, was a Mormon bigamist who took a pair of sisters as wives. Christina Borglum, the sister who bore Gutzon, left him and the rest of the family when he was about 4.

Despite his fractured family, Borglum grew up with such artistic talent, charm, good looks and ambition that he not only won friends in high places but also kept them despite anti-Semitic writings. In about 1915, the Shaffs write, he signed on to carve a memorial at Stone Mountain in Georgia and soon rose to the high ranks of the newly resurgent Ku Klux Klan. Later he was fired from the project and chased out of the state by his former boosters.

"My life has been a one-man war from its beginning," Borglum told one interviewer. But a friend, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, might have said it better: "Gutzon was for war, all sorts of war, six wars at a time."

The Shaffs' book, out of print for several years, is absent from the bookstore, and polygamy and the KKK are absent from exhibition texts and films, which were last updated about a decade ago.

Back then, the Park Service's Olson notes, the agency "tended to tell the good side of the story, rather than the whole story." Now, in ranger talks, "we tell the whole story as it is, all sides," including the Klan.

In fact, she added, it was Borglum's break with the Georgia project that made Rushmore possible. In 1924, as the Stone Mountain project was beginning to fall apart, South Dakota historian Doane Robinson invited Borglum to consider a monument to Western heroes in the Black Hills.

Borglum, never one to aim low, suggested Robinson think nationally, not regionally. In 1927, with President Calvin Coolidge on hand, drilling and demolition began.

In the Borglum studio, visitors see the sculptor's model, one-twelfth of the mountaintop's size, and learn how Borglum deployed retrained miners in dangling slings, then endured repeated work stoppages during the Great Depression as federal money dried up. While the sculptor crisscrossed the country seeking backers, his eldest son, Lincoln, supervised work on the mountain.

And when Borglum died in 1941, it was Lincoln who led one final summer of drilling and chiseling, then declared the sculpture finished. (Lincoln Borglum died in 1986.) It's astonishing, given all this, to learn that the whole project cost just less than $1 million to build, 84 percent of it paid by the federal government. It's equally surprising to read that not one worker died on the job. On your way out of the Rushmore viewing area, you can read the workers' names, all 400 of them.

And if you do, be sure look to the end of the list, where the Zs are, and prepare to hear somebody say: "Ziolkowski?"

Christopher Reynolds writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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