Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Mount Rushmore National Memorial, or, as its sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, referred to it, the Shrine of Democracy, was the brainchild of Doane Robinson, South Dakota's poet laureate and superintendent of the State Historical Society. The year was 1923. Robinson's idea was to carve notable western figures on the granite stone spires called the Needles, which rise along one of the highways through the Black Hills. He approached U.S. senator Peter Norbeck with the concept. Robinson believed that South Dakota needed to diversify its economy that at the time was based on mining, which experienced periods of boom and bust, and agriculture, which was suffering. He felt that larger-than-life stone sculptures would draw tourists to the Black Hills. Norbeck had met Gutzon Borglum in 1916 at the Republican National Convention and liked him personally. In the early 1920s Norbeck had been present when Borglum made his pitch to Congress for financial support for Stone Mountain in Georgia, a Confederate memorial. At that time, Borglum was highly respected for the numerous works of art he had already produced. Senator Norbeck felt Borglum was audacious enough and talented enough to take on the challenge of carving huge figures in granite.

Robinson and Norbeck began a letterwriting campaign to convince Borglum to come to South Dakota and take on the project. When Borglum visited South Dakota, he immediately felt that the project should be national in scope and proposed carving larger figures than had ever been carved before and carving them on the side of a mountain. Borglum convinced Norbeck that the sculptures should be of significant presidents. In a letter to the senator, Borglum explained his choices: Washington and Lincoln, "founder" and "savior," respectively; Jefferson, the "first great expansionist"; and Roosevelt, who had "completed commercial control by securing the Panama Canal."

The concept was agreed upon, and a site near the isolated mining town of Keystone was chosen. The formal dedication was held on August 10, 1927, with President Calvin Coolidge in attendance, and carving commenced that year, when Borglum was sixty years old. Work continued until early 1941, when Borglum died. His son, Lincoln, oversaw some finishing work on the mountain, but that work was stopped at the end of October, when the impending war required the conservation of resources.

Borglum had intended to carve more of the presidents' figures and also to carve a vault in the canyon wall behind Mount Rushmore. However, after his death the memorial was not completed according to Borglum's original design. Fortunately, Borglum himself was able to finish the lifelike features of the four presidents.

Each year, more than 2.5 million visitors gaze up at the faces of the Shrine of Democracy. They stand in awe of its magnificence and in appreciation for its remarkable sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, and his truly American image, Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

See also FOLKWAYS: Roadside Attractions / POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT: Norbeck, Peter.

Mount Rushmore National Momument website.

Sheila R. Aaker Black Hills State University

Shaff, Howard, and Audrey K. Shaff. Six Wars at a Time. Darien CT: Permelia Publishing, 1985.

Smith, Rex A. The Carving of Mount Rushmore. New York: Abbeville Press, 1985.

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