Long before Gutzon Borglum befriended Teddy Roosevelt, tiffed with Adolf Hitler and entrenched himself in a political battle within the Ku Klux Klan, the eccentric sculptor of Mount Rushmore was a little boy who tried to run away to Omaha with his dog.
It was summer 1870 when the Borglum family arrived in the frontier town of Fremont, Nebraska. Father James and his wives Ida and Christina — sisters — fled Mormonism by train, leaving behind their log cabin in Idaho.
They started fresh in Nebraska. They baptized their children Catholic, including 3-year-old Gutzon, the future Rushmore sculptor. To escape a public mark of polygamy, the family registered Gutzon’s mother, Christina, as an unwed housekeeper; she left to start a life of her own shortly thereafter.
Young Gutzon grew fed up with the turmoil of his early life. One night in 1874, 7-year-old Gutzon and his dog fled to Omaha. He was caught by police, returned home and banished to the dog kennel that evening, but he got his wish later that year when the family moved to a house near North 25th and Caldwell streets in Omaha.
His early attempt to run away showed what kind of man he would become. A bold, independent person willing to strike out on his own, indifferent to how he might be perceived.
The Nebraska Years
As a high schooler at Creighton Prep, then located where Creighton University is today, Borglum was noted for drawing pictures of students and instructors instead of focusing on his studies.
“(He) was a reluctant student,” the World-Herald wrote when Borglum died in 1941. “The faculty complained to Borglum’s parents that his attitude wasn’t good.”
But he still found learning opportunities. The World-Herald wrote in 1952 that Borglum chiseled stone to install plumbing at the school, working alongside his neighbor, who was the contractor for the project.
His time in Omaha was short. His father sent him away to boarding school in Kansas, then moved the family to California when Gutzon was 17.
Some biographies describe Borglum as developing a disdain for Fremont and Omaha. One described him returning home later in life to find a changed Fremont.
Still, as he became famous, he didn’t forget Nebraska. He helped start a campaign to raise money for a pioneers’ memorial near Mount Vernon Gardens in South Omaha, which never came to fruition, and he at least planned to sculpt a pair of war memorial plaques for Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, though it’s unknown whether that project ever happened. At one point, two plaques were created for Gate 20, but they’ve long since gone missing. And there’s no record of Borglum ever creating them, only a letter from an architect asking him to do so.
An eccentric and contradictory artist
After Borglum left Omaha, his ascent as an artist began.
He married his teacher in California, a painter 20 years his senior, and went on to study in San Francisco, Paris, England and New York City before creating several internationally-known works, including sculptures of Abraham Lincoln for the Capitol Rotunda and Woodrow Wilson for Poland.
Not only was Borglum a talented artist, but he was a doozy of a quote for a newspaper. He used that charisma to advance his agenda. Time in the spotlight was often a blessing, but just as often a curse for a man rife with contradictions.
He was a vocal supporter and friend of Theodore Roosevelt and a harsh critic of Wilson, yet he accepted a commission to sculpt Wilson. He had a well-documented disdain for Jews, penning a paper entitled “The Jewish Question,” yet publicly criticized Adolf Hitler and the Nazis for their treatment of Jews early in World War II.
When Hitler’s troops took Poland, Hitler responded to Borglum’s criticism by ordering the Wilson Memorial destroyed.
“The Third Reich cannot tolerate such poor art,” Hitler said at the time, according to the Borglum biography “Six Wars at a Time.” “The artist made the head too big, the legs too short.”
A Confederate monument and the KKK
If it weren’t for Mount Rushmore, Borglum might be best known for a Confederate mountain carving project funded by the Ku Klux Klan.
In 1915, Helen Plane, president of The United Daughters of the Confederacy, asked Borglum to carve the head of Robert E. Lee onto the side of Stone Mountain near Atlanta, Georgia. It’s the same site where the Ku Klux Klan was revived that same year.
Borglum accepted the job, which he expanded to include Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis, each on horseback. It would become his signature work in the years before Mount Rushmore, but Borglum’s involvement with Stone Mountain washed away in a tide of political infighting.
“At the root of the trouble lay the fact that in too many ways Stone Mountain was a Ku Klux Klan project,” wrote the authors of “Six Wars at a Time.” “If Gutzon had been able to see the danger in time to get out of the fight, the mountain carving might have survived.”
Due to World War I, work didn’t begin until eight years later, and Borglum was tasked with raising funds for the project — typical of his more ambitious endeavors.
To raise money, Borglum aligned himself with D.C. Stephenson, the Grand Dragon of the Indiana sect of the KKK. Stephenson would go on to lose a political power struggle with Dr. Hiram Evans and served 25 years in prison for rape and murder.
Soon after, Borglum found himself without a job. He was fired from Stone Mountain shortly after revealing the first completed aspect, the head of General Lee. Sculpted by jackhammers, chisels and dynamite, Lee’s head was well received by project organizers.
“The dedication service at the unveiling of Lee’s head was better than Appomattox,” Borglum told the World-Herald in 1924, a few months after its unveiling. “For it proved that we have arrived at a point in our history when we are so completely one people that the north could join with the south in praising its great dead.”
Shortly thereafter, he was fired, and he destroyed his project models, then fled an arrest warrant for willful destruction of association property. He eluded the sheriff to North Carolina, but the state’s governor eventually turned him over.
His Stone Mountain project was sandblasted and commissioned to another artist, Henry Augustus Lukeman.
“Every able man in America refused it, and thank God, every Christian,” the Smithsonian reports Borglum saying at the time. “They got a Jew.”
The extent of his involvement and genuine interest in Klan causes are disputed. “Six Wars at a Time” authors paint Borglum as a willing participant in the KKK with some shared ideologies, but eventually distill his position to that of an opportunistic artist seeking political influence and cash. His wife, Mary, downplays his involvement in her biography of her husband, “Give the Man Room.” Borglum publicly denied any involvement in the KKK.
The Shrine of Democracy
As Borglum’s project at Stone Mountain was eroding, a letter arrived from South Dakota.
Doane Robinson, superintendent for the South Dakota Department of History, pitched Borglum the idea to carve Western figures “of unusual character” into the Black Hills, including Lewis and Clark, Buffalo Bill Cody, John C. Fremont, Red Cloud and Sacagawea.
Just as with Stone Mountain, Borglum thought he had a better idea. He persuaded Robinson to sculpt presidents instead to draw more people and raise more money for the project.
The sculpture at Mount Rushmore would be referred to as “The Shrine of Democracy.” The 60-foot-high heads were chosen to represent the United States’ empire builders.
Washington was “the founder,” Jefferson “the first expansionist” and Lincoln “the savior.” Theodore Roosevelt was chosen, Borglum reasoned, because he secured Panama, ensuring commercial control and economic stability for the country. Years later, Borglum’s son Lincoln Borglum, who continued his father’s work, noted two others he’d like to see recognized.
“FDR is always the top choice and Kennedy is second,” he told the Associated Press. “But it’s a moot question. There’s no room for another head.”
Borglum started blasting rock in 1927. Federal financing in 1929 helped, but the sculpture was still a financial drain.
When asked in 1940 about the cost, Borglum said “Call up Cheops and ask him how much his pyramid cost, and what he paid the creator — an inferior work to Mt. Rushmore.”
Compared to the catastrophe at Stone Mountain, Rushmore might have looked like a walk in the park. In 14 years, Borglum managed to sculpt the faces of four presidents and began work on chests and hands, which were never completed. But in reality, the project was an immense struggle, especially for those working under Borglum.
“His innovations with light and shadow sculpting the eyes of his subjects was amazing,” said Maureen McGee-Ballinger, chief of interpretation and education at the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. “He was also a volatile artist, firing workers on the sculpture one day and expecting them to be back at work the next.”
Even a sitting president experienced Borglum’s eccentricity. Calvin Coolidge once paid a visit and penned a 500-word inscription. True to his character, Borglum edited the president’s work.
Borglum died before he could finish Rushmore. He hoped for a half-body sculpture of Washington, detailed hands of Lincoln and Jefferson and a Hall of Records including busts of presidents and other key figures of change like Susan B. Anthony.
His son Lincoln continued work on the project, but it has remained mostly unchanged since Gutzon’s death.
Even unfinished, the Fremont boy’s granite sculpture was immediately regarded as a masterpiece.
His time in Nebraska was brief — he lived here for roughly a decade. But, as his World-Herald obituary noted, the state can forever claim influence on the artist of one of America’s great landmarks:
“Omaha can be mighty proud that it had him for a brief time as a little shaver.”