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Arland Fiske column: Gutzon Borglum – sculptor of presidents

When the War Between the States was over, immigration to the New World began with gusto.

Among those who came to America was the Borglum family from Denmark. James Borglum, a classics scholar and medical student, angry over the way his family’s estate was divided, took his young wife to the border of Utah and Idaho.

Gutzon Borglum was born there on March 25, 1867. One day, while still too small to understand, he remembered his mother giving him a goodbye kiss and walking out the door, never to return.

Gutzon’s father remarried and moved to St. Louis to complete his medical degree. From there they moved to Fremont and later to Omaha, Neb. Gutzon had bad feelings towards his stepmother, so he went off to a boarding school in St. Mary’s, Kan.

While there, he fell in love with art. This displeased his parents, but being made of the same stubborn qualities as his father, he persisted. Their move to Los Angeles when he was 17 gave him the chance he wanted.

His special love was horses. One of his paintings, “Staging in California,” pictured a stagecoach with runaway horses flying along a mountain cliff. This caught the attention of Gen. John Fremont, famed for his exploration of the Oregon Trail. Gutzon’s career was launched when he painted the general’s portrait. In 1890, Gutzon, with his new bride, went to Paris.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy commissioned Borglum to carve a 20-foot head of Gen. Robert E. Lee on Stone Mountain near Atlanta. He was also to have done Gen. Thomas (“Stonewall”) Jackson and Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. His patrons, however, tried to cheat him, so he destroyed the plans. Then they tried to have him arrested, but he escaped across the state line and was given asylum by the governor.

If you go to Atlanta, take a drive out to Stone Mountain. Another artist completed the work in 1916. A dazzling laser show is held near the carvings after dark.

Among his statues were those of Gen. Phillip Sheridan, Union general during the Civil War; the Wright Brothers airplane, James Smithson, founding donor of the Smithsonian Institute; the Gettysburg Memorial that President Woodrow Wilson commissioned for Poland; and the remodeling of the torch on the Statue of Liberty.

Borglum’s most famous work was the presidents’ heads at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. Begun in 1925, it was not completed until Oct. 31, 1941, seven months after the famed sculptor died. His son Lincoln finished the work. The final cost was $989,991.32, a fantastic bargain. It took so long because the project would run out of money and had to wait for Congress to approve new funding.

Denmark is proud of the Mount Rushmore memorial. When I visited Legoland, near Vejle in Denmark, I saw a miniature Mount Rushmore built with Lego blocks.

While the work in the Black Hills was taking place, Borglum was in great demand elsewhere. A temperamental artist, it was not unusual for him to pick up an ax and smash what others thought to be a masterpiece. While doing a statue of a horse for the Sheridan Hotel in Chicago, he knocked off a leg, saying, “I’d rather be late in delivering it than give Chicago something less than perfect.”

Having experienced a painful childhood, Borglum was devoted to his family. His son Lincoln carried on Borglum’s artistic tradition and completed the statue of Christ on a mountain overlooking Mount Rushmore.

His son added gentleness to the statue, picturing Christ as a teacher giving the Sermon on the Mount that invited all viewers to “come unto me.”

The next time you go to Mount Rushmore, remember the son of the immigrant physician from Denmark who became America’s most famous sculptor.

Next week: Sigurd the Crusader.


ARLAND FISKE, a retired Lutheran minister, previously lived in Laporte and now lives in Texas. He is the author of 10 books on Scandinavian themes, including “Sermon in Psalms,” published in 2012.