On Mar. 3, 1925, Federal legislation was passed by Congress authorizing the carving and setting forth the purpose for Mount Rushmore State Park: “the establishment of a memorial commemorative of our national history and progress.” Who came up with the idea of carving four big heads in the middle of nowhere, South Dakota?
Two brains were behind the idea. The first was Doane Robinson who was the South Dakota state historian from 1901-1926. Robinson came up with the idea to carve sculptures into the granite hills of South Dakota as a way to drive tourism to the region. He specifically asked for a “heroic sculpture of unusual character,” in a letter to the sculptor when asking for help.
The sculptor was Gutzon Borglum, born in Idaho, son of a Danish immigrant, and who studied art in Europe. After achieving some success in England, he returned to the United States to create distinctly “American” art. His acclaimed 1908 marble sculpture of Lincoln’s head (currently at the Capitol Building) brought him to the attention of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who wanted him to create a “shrine to the South” on the side of Stone Mountain.
Borglum had no ties to the Confederacy, but he had white supremacist leanings. In letters he fretted about a “mongrel horde” overrunning the “Nordic” purity of the West. The controversial project tied Borglum to white supremacists, when he joined the KKK in a torch-lighting ceremony on top of Stone Mountain in 1915. While there isn’t proof that Borglum officially joined the Klan, which helped fund the project, “he nonetheless became deeply involved in Klan politics,” John Taliaferro writes in Great White Fathers, his 2002 book about the history of Mount Rushmore.
Borglum’s decision to work with the Klan wasn’t even a sound business proposition. By the mid-1920s, infighting left the group in disarray and fundraising for the Stone Mountain memorial stalled. It was during this time that Robinson’s letter to Borglum requesting his help on the South Dakota project arrived. This enraged Borglum’s southern backers, and they fired him on Feb. 25, 1925. Before Borglum left, he destroyed his models for the shrine, and fled to North Carolina with the locals on his heels.
The Stone Mountain sponsors sandblasted Borglum’s work and hired a new artist, Henry Augustus Lukeman, to execute the memorial, only adding to Borglum’s bitterness. “Every able man in America refused it, and thank God, every Christian,” Borglum later said of Lukeman. “They got a Jew.” (A third sculptor, Walker Kirtland Hancock, completed the memorial in 1972.)
Still, the years in Georgia had given Borglum the expertise to tackle Rushmore, and he began carving in 1927 at age 60. He famously devoted the last 14 years of his life to the project. His son, Lincoln, oversaw the finishing touches, and Mount Rushmore was dedicated on Oct. 31, 1941. Since then, the monument has brought in millions of tourists and dollars to South Dakota.
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