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Harris Blackwood: The man who made Mount Rushmore almost left his mark on Stone Mountain
Harris Blackwood
Harris Blackwood

PIERRE, South Dakota — The name Gutzon Borglum may not ring a bell, but he was the creator of the carving of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln atop Mount Rushmore in Keystone, South Dakota.

Borglum was also the first designer of a carving on the face of Stone Mountain. The United Daughters of the Confederacy approached him about putting a 20-foot tall image of Gen. Robert E. Lee on the 800-foot granite monolith. He agreed but thought their idea for a carving was much too small.

"Ladies, a twenty-foot head of Lee on that mountainside would look like a postage stamp on a barn door," Borglum told the UDC members. Borlglum's grand design included the full images of Lee, Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson and Confederate President Jefferson Davis followed by a legion of troops. Between the huge cost and a few folks balking at Borglum's authoritarian ways, he eventually destroyed his clay models and left town. He headed to a little spot out in Western South Dakota and from 1927 to 1941 he worked to accomplish the images that have drawn millions to this part of the U.S.

Borglum enjoyed his notoriety and traveled the world to promote the project. In the Borglum home in South Dakota was a grand piano. It is currently on loan to the Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church in the state capital of Pierre (by the way, it is pronounced like pier, a place for good fishing).

I'm not a great singer, but I got to sing at the wedding of my friends, Lee Axdahl and Brandy Nannini. I was accompanied by the piano that once graced the Borglum home. The piano is in marvelous condition and I thought that many great musical talents may have performed on or with it in the Borglum home. I felt a tad unworthy.

Incidentally, Borglem never saw the completed Mount Rushmore. He died of complications from surgery and his son, Lincoln, took over to finish the final details.

There is something magnificent about Mount Rushmore. To see those lifelike faces looking out into the South Dakota countryside is breathtaking. Borglum, ever the grand designer, wanted to have all of the presidents from head to waist, but the money was out of reach and today, their heads are all that is exposed in the granite mountainside.

The idea for Mount Rushmore is attributed to South Dakota historian Doane Robinson to attract tourists to the area. He originally wanted to build it in the Needles, an area of eroded granite pillars. Borglum felt that they would not work and decided on Mount Rushmore.

Incidentally, one of the most beautiful sites is through a short tunnel in Needles. When you emerge from the tunnel in a car, you are nearly at eye level of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln. It is a breathtaking moment and it can be reached through Custer State Park, near Rushmore.

This is about my fourth trip out West and my second to the Black Hills of the Dakotas. If you haven't been, I highly recommend it. It is a sight that will be forever etched in your memory. You're likely to see herds of bison and bighorn sheep. You may even see a prairie dog or two.

The various rock formations in the area are amazing. It was even more amazing how the sheep have coats that camouflage them from immediate sight. They almost blend perfectly in the mountainsides.

Next week, I'll tell you about some interesting people and places I visited along my route through three Canadian provinces and seven states.

Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the Sunday Life page and on www.gainesvilletimes.com.

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