Mount Rushmore, American to its granite core

Mount Rushmore the way it probably appeared when my mother visited in 1933.

Mount Rushmore the way it probably appeared when my mother visited in 1933.

Some of my mother’s first memories are of a trip with her parents to see Mount Rushmore under construction. It was 1933. She was just three years old.

She sat on red leather seats in the back of a Model T Ford for the ride from Kansas, and ate beans out of a can. At the campground where they stopped to stay in a cabin, she got into trouble for roaming from picnic table to picnic table, begging for cake.

In 1933, only George Washington’s head was visible. Artist Gutzon Borglum already had discovered the granite to the right of Washington, where they had begun to carve Thomas Jefferson, could not support the sculpture, and they had blasted away its beginnings, knowing they would have to move it to the other side.

My mother recalls standing in the road, finding a one-cent stamp with Washington’s head on it and telling her mother it was the same as the face on the mountain. It was a moment of individual discovery she cherishes to this day.

When I visited the monument recently, I was struck by the absurdity of the venture, which at first was envisioned to include Lewis and Clark, Red Cloud, John C. Fremont, and other heroes of western history.

Why carve mountains into images of people? Why alter the beauty of nature?

It was Borglum’s idea to switch to the presidents, Washington, the father of our democracy, Lincoln, who held the country together, Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and advocate of the Louisiana Purchase, and Theodore Roosevelt, the first president to foster protection of the rights of the working man.

And it was Borglum who would defend the idea of carving them into a mountainside.

“Colossal art has [a] value – human and soul-stirring – that should be incorporated permanently in all National expression – consciously and deliberately in scale with its importance [and] with the people whose li[ves] it expresses,” he wrote.

Borglum recalled a sculptor showing him the image of a president he had carved on the head of a pin, which Borglum called meaningless.

Size, Borglum decided, had an emotional impact. Bigger is better, he determined.

“I realized how the whole process of life in its healthy form [is expansive] in character; nature [grows] from within out; understanding enlarges one’s visions, one’s happiness, multiplies the forms of pleasure; includes always – by selection excludes but never diminishes.”

As I visited Mount Rushmore recently, I thought how Borglum was right and wrong.

The faces on the mountain do capture our national personality, in historic gravitas, in concept and scale, as well as in the ingenuity required to construct them and the ability to raise money for the project, even during the Depression.

But the highly designed visitor’s center, dual parking structures, ($11 parking fee), movie theater, ice cream café, gift shop, and “trail,” which actually is a boardwalk with stairs, made me long for a simpler experience of discovery.

More like that of a three-year-old, standing in the dusty road, connecting Washington’s face to that on a one-cent stamp.

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