Thursday, May 3, 2012
Location: Central Park, Elmwood, Illinois
Dedication: May 27, 1928
GPS Coordinates: N 40º 46.698 W 089º 57.949
On September 12, 1925, a small group of citizens from Elmwood, Illinois, met and recommended that one of Elmwood’s most famous citizens, Lorado Taft, be commissioned to create a sculpture in his hometown. The members of the group contacted Taft, and he accepted the assignment. Taft agreed to donate his work if the town could raise the necessary money for the casting of the sculpture and the mounting of it on a base. Marion Webster Lott volunteered to be the chairman of the fundraising committee, and Edson Smith served as the cochairman. The committee needed to raise $15,000 for the project, and a generous donation of $5,000 by Mr. & Mrs. E. L. Brown provided the foundation for the remainder of the fundraising.
The project was a true community effort. The local newspaper, the Elmwood Gazette, was very supportive and helped with the fundraising effort. Solicitation letters prepared by the high school typing class were sent out to friends and former residents of Elmwood. The Boy Scouts, the Kiwanis Club, the King’s Daughters, the E.O.W. Club, the International Order of Odd Fellows, the Rebekahs and Eastern Star Lodges, and the Women’s Club all pitched in to raise money. School children gave $120 by saving and contributing dimes. The committee reported on February 1, 1926, that the amount of money in hand or pledged exceeded the original goal.
Taft’s The Pioneers was cast in bronze and arrived in Elmwood in a railroad boxcar on May 23, 1928. The J.P. Bourgoin Monument Company supplied a granite base set on concrete. Taft depicted a young pioneer couple with the man holding a gun in his hand, and the woman clutching a baby. There was a look of idealism and great fearlessness on the face of the young man. A dog at the family’s feet represented the domestic life experienced by all pioneers. Taft’s explanation of The Pioneers’ significance was engraved on the base: “To The Pioneers Who Bridged The Streams, Subdued The Soil, And Founded A State.”
The Pioneers was unveiled and dedicated in Elmwood’s Central Park on May 27, 1928. Two thousand invitations to the ceremony were mailed out, and an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 people arrived in Elmwood by train and automobile. The Elmwood Community Band gave a one-hour concert while the attendees were taking their seats. The Girl’s Glee Club of Elmwood High School sang “America The Beautiful” and “Illinois”. Taft’s daughter Emily, later the wife of Illinois Senator Paul H. Douglas, and Marian Brown Pollitz, daughter of the E.L. Browns, unveiled the statue. Elmwood mayor, S.R. Fleisher, officially accepted the statue on behalf of the community. Dr. David McKinley, president of the University of Illinois, and State Superintendent of Instruction Francis Blair offered greetings and congratulations to the community. Former Governor Frank Lowden sent a message saying: “This is a fine thing that Lorado Taft is doing for his home community, but he is always doing fine things for everybody’s community.”
Taft’s brother-in-law, author Hamlin Garland, was the principle speaker, and the topic of his address was “The Westward March of the Pioneers.” He called the pioneer the most distinctive personage in American life and literature. Employing all of his considerable literary and poetic skills, Garland continued: “The pioneer had never before been seen. Europe colonized in tribes, in communities. The individual explorer is a development of the western continent. Who shall estimate the wealth of shadow, the fund of poetry, the splendor of romance, which the pathfinders, both red and white, have bequeathed to us? The trail of memory leads away to shadow-dappled glades. It offers the cabin and sweet sleep. It recalls the heroism, the simplicity, and the sanity of our grandsires. It enables us to overtake the things vanishing, to listen to the creak of the latch-string, to bend to the rude fireplace, and to blow again upon the embers, gray with ashes, till a flame springs up and the shadows of mournful beauty dance upon the walls. I am glad that I was born early enough to catch the dying echoes of their songs, to bask in the failing light of their fires.”
Lorado Taft greeted the assembled crowd and expressed great satisfaction in having one of his creative works located in his hometown. Taft continued: “I am very grateful and very glad you have helped me in placing this group. It is not my gift to you, but rather your gift to yourselves. It would give me great joy to be able to place in every community some work of art that would make permanent the traditions around which it was founded. I should like to help in making all communities interesting to themselves. All have memorials, there is much to commemorate all through Illinois. All is changed now from the time of the pioneer. Now we travel where they used to travail. Now all are neighbors. All communities have paid tribute to war, horrible as it is, but there are so many other things to be capitalized. Better things should come to this state of ours, so rich, so fortunate.”
The Pioneers was added to the National Register of Historic places in 2001. On Sunday, August 2, 2009, the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Elmwood Community Band, band director Stewart McKechnie debuted a newly commissioned work called “The Pioneers.” The band gave the concert in the Central Park gazebo, very near Taft’s sculpture of the same name.
Elmwood boasts another Taft sculpture. After Lorado Taft died in Chicago on October 30, 1936, his ashes were scattered over the ground in Elmwood Cemetery. The spot is now marked by the sculptural piece Memory, one of Taft’s most intimate creative works. Memory is a smaller replica of an original bronze statue entitled Foote Memorial Angel. Located in Woodlawn Cemetery in Jackson, Michigan, this statue was a favorite of Lorado Taft’s wife. Memory was dedicated in Elmwood Cemetery on April 29, 1938.
For further reading:
Coon, Richard A. & Nancy C. Coon. Remembering A Favorite Son: The Story of Lorado Taft. Elmwood, Illinois: The Elmwood Historical Society, 2003.
“Descendants Pay Tribute to Central Illinois Pioneers at Unveiling of Group Statue at Elmwood on Sunday.” Bloomington Daily Pantagraph. May 28, 1928.
Hieronymus, R. E. “Lorado Taft’s Pioneer Group At Elmwood.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. Vol. 21, No. 2. July, 1928.
“A Memorial To Pioneers.” Chicago Daily News. March 6, 1928.
“The Pioneers.” The Illinois Teacher. April 1929.
“Taft Remembers Old Home Town: Eminent Artist to Present Sculptured Group to City of Elmwood.” Bloomington Pantagraph. October 21, 1925.
Von Keller, Beatrice. “Taft’s ‘The Pioneers’ Unveiled at Elmwood: Noted Sculptor Honors His Birthplace.” Illinois Journal of Commerce. August 1928.