"Isn't it just wonderful? What Mother Nature has done?”
Now I'm an ardent admirer of natural beauty. I freely admit there's more than ample evidence of God's handiwork---all across this fruited plain. Yet, at this particular point in time, the speaker and I were gazing at the 60-foot long presidential visages that occupy the face of Mount Rushmore.
Had she but glanced to her left upon returning to the colorful Hall of Flags, she would have glimpsed a bronze bust of the primary sculptor---Danish-American Gutzon Borglum.
A head of Abraham Lincoln---rendered by Borglum from a six-ton block of marble and gifted to President Theodore Roosevelt---initially exhibited Borglum's fascination with immense scale and heroic nationalism.
Considering himself an uber-patriot, Borglum not only argued that the "monuments we have built are not our own" but also sought, according to a 1908 interview, to create art that was "American, drawn from American sources, memorializing American achievement."
Borglum, his son Lincoln and 400 locals (many were failed gold prospectors) labored intermittently from 1927 through 1941, used enough dynamite to blast away 450,000 tons of rock and, according to former Mount Rushmore worker Don "Nick" Clifford, "although there were bumps, bruises and close calls, during the entire 14 years of construction there were never any fatalities."
Uncle Sam picked up most of the cost of coaxing the colossal countenances (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt) from stubborn Black Hills granite. The final tally was $989,992.32 or over $16 million in today's dollars.
I would suppose that the monument’s three million (annual average) shocked and awed visitors wouldn’t hesitate to absolve Borglum of a minimal act of chicanery he found necessary to raise money.
Sen. Peter Norbeck (R-SD) and Borglum invited President Calvin Coolidge to vacation at Custer State Park. The 30th president was so enamored with the fishing---he had no idea that the stream outside his room was being stocked with thousands of trout after midnight---that he extended his stay just long enough for Borglum and Norbeck to extract a promise of federal funding from him.
Even today, and certainly In keeping with Borglum's incessant fretting about finances, a Mount Rushmore Preservation Fund poster (for sale in the gift shop) insists: "If they [Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln] were dictators, they wouldn't ask for your support---they'd demand it.”
Silent Cal may have provided few entries in Bartlett's "Familiar Quotations," but this one has gained traction as a meme frequently posted on Facebook.
"Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent."
Yet despite Borglum's exemplary persistence and determination, he didn't manage to finish his super-sized sculptures. If you observe the plaster models in Borglum's studio, you will see that the artist intended the bodies of each subject to end well below the waist.
Or if a South Dakota road trip isn't in your immediate future, just Google an image of Mt. Rushmore. If you look directly under Lincoln's chin whiskers, you should make out what Borglum meant to be the rounded knuckles on Honest Abe's left hand.
Also still in progress is the gargantuan vault Borglum started carving out of the canyon wall directly behind his iconic individuals.
You've probably heard about people who take the long view of history, right?
Borglum, who was keenly aware that his masterpiece would endure for many millennia (the estimated erosion rate is 1 inch every 10,000 years), grew paranoid that future generations would scratch their heads and wonder, "Exactly what is the purpose of this monumental monument?"
To that end, not only did he plan to leave official papers documenting the construction of the memorial but also those documenting the birth of the nation.
But all the persistence and determination in the world can't stay the hand of the Grim Reaper---Borglum died unexpectedly on March 6, 1941---or the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Without the driving force and funding---Congress immediately ceased appropriations for the mountain carving---it appeared the Hall of Records would remain a pipedream.
In 1998, however, the National Park Service finished a scaled-down version of the vault and opened it to the public.
So as we approach Independence Day, when the Washington likeness on Mt. Rushmore was unveiled 84 years ago, it might be a good time to learn from this seemingly anonymous architect.
Borglum may have spent countless sleepless nights stewing about the future, but he should have kept an eye on Mother Nature instead. Who knew she would try to steal his thunder?