Into the Black Hills: Aug 28 – Sept 2, 2010

Leaving Medora behind, we jogged back east a little and came down Rtes. 85 and 79 for about 175 miles until we could again turn east to Rapid City, South Dakota. On the way, we stopped for fuel in Belle Fourche, which touts itself as the geographic center of North America. We also made it through Sturgis, SD with no problem, now devoid of the half a million bikes and 600,000 riders that descended on the city two weeks earlier for their 70th annual rally.

We had selected a campground near the city, even though there were others closer to the main attraction: Mt. Rushmore. Off into the Black Hills the following day, we took in both Mt. Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial. The former was about 25 miles from the campground, and the latter, in Custer State Park, about 15 miles beyond that. The trip took us along Needles Highway, a fantastic vista of granite outcroppings.

One’s first in-person impression of Mt. Rushmore happens around a curve about three miles away. Of course it couldn’t be real; it just has to be another of the hundreds of 2D images we’ve all seen throughout our lives. But it is real, and that’s breathtaking. There are plenty of pull-offs available, and no one fails to take advantage of them. Upon arrival at the site, a private concessionaire extracts $10 per car, but the parking pass is good for a calendar year. The walk to the base of the mountain is through a colonnade of the states, with striking columns and flags galore. At its end is the two story viewing area and exhibit. Beyond is a huge amphitheater, descending from the viewing terrace.

If you’ve visited Mt. Rushmore and/or know a lot about its history, you may want to skip the balance of this section. I knew who was displayed and, in general, why. I’m sure I had heard the name of the sculptor, but I could never have told you who he was.

Once in close-up full view of the masterpiece, my opinion was somewhat different – and Dot shared it. We both expected it to be much larger and overpowering; a crescendo comparable to the finale of the 1812 Overture! Instead, it stood there in quiet grandeur. People even spoke quietly, though cameras snapped continuously.

Touring the site, however, the marvel that it is becomes restored.

The sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, was retained in 1927 by South Dakota’s state historian to create the monument. Borglum had become well known for the six foot tall head of Lincoln that resided in the White House with Teddy Roosevelt and eventually found its permanent home in the U.S. Capital. Born in Idaho, he studied in California and eventually in Paris, where he got to know Auguste Rodin. His portfolio vastly exceeds the Lincoln head and the monument, of course; in fact, a separate Borglum museum of his work can be found in the Rushmore area.

Earlier in the Twenties, he had contracted with the Daughters of the Confederacy to immortalize General R.E. Lee on Stone Mountain in Georgia. Convincing his client that Lee alone would be the equivalent of a postage stamp on a barn, he enlarged the project and won approval. After completing Lee, however, he had a steadily increasing adversarial relationship with his patrons, and he eventually destroyed his model and fled the state. He did, however, develop significant knowledge in this effort to jumpstart the Rushmore project. While some saw him as a racist because the Georgia project was funded in large part by the KKK, he also is immortalized by a huge statue of General Phil Sheridan in D.C.

Rushmore was originally limited to Washington and Jefferson, as the founder of our country and the author of its Declaration. Borglum saw not only Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase but also Lincoln’s and Roosevelt’s endeavors as instruments of our expansion, our manifest destiny. So the monument took on an expanded life. He built the model, then worked at first with hand tools on the granite slope before realizing that explosives were the way to go. Extending his model up using a “pantographic” technique, he took profiles off the model and scaled them up using long planks and lines. A dynamic, flamboyant person, he spent much of his time on the mountain supervising but also spent considerable time in Washington stirring up more money – and other contracts. He and his crew became so proficient that they could drill and pack just the right amount of explosives to create intimate details, like noses and even eyeglasses. Dross would be eliminated by shallow honeycomb drilling and chiseling to complete a feature.

Gutzon died in 1941. His son declared the memorial done as it had been completed during his life and went no further. If you look at the model, there are additional features below the heads, such as clothes and appendages, which Gutzon would have added had he lived. Note on the studio model shown at right not only the extra features but the rendition of the pantographic method on Lincoln’s head. Along with this model in Gutzon’s on-site studio is a full-size replica of a time capsule, several of which were intended to be installed at the site but never materialized.

We left the grounds slowly, continuously looking back. As we drove away, we got a last profile view of George. The experience was probably enough to last a lifetime.

Two postscripts. The mountain was named for Charles Rushmore, a New York businessman. Legend has it that he was out in the Black Hills in 1885 checking on mining properties when a local businessman named the mountain for him, and it stuck. Rushmore is allegedly the single largest contributor, at $5,000, to the Borglum effort. The other postscript: no one was killed in the sculpture’s completion.

The situation at Crazy Horse is quite different. This memorial outscales Rushmore by a factor of . . . well . . . the four Rushmore heads would fit on the outstretched arm of the Native American memorial. Problem is, the arm, and the horse, and the body, and the head-top feather are far from completed. Incidentally, the feather alone will be two thirds the height of the Rushmore heads.

Its sculptor was a name I’d never heard: Korczak Ziolkowski. Born in Boston, orphaned a year later and never adopted, he struggled through childhood but eventually put himself through Rindge Tech. He first became a fine furniture maker. His artistic skills were instinctive and encouraged by family court judge Frederick Pickering Cabot; Korczak rewarded his cheerleader with a marble portrait of the judge. As his abilities developed and became recognized, he moved to West Hartford, CT and opened a studio.

1939 was a metamorphic year. At age 31, he won first prize at the NY World’s Fair for his sculpture of noted pianist/composer/politician Paddy Paderewski. He was invited by Gutzon to work on Mt. Rushmore. (The collaboration was short lived; Gutzon dismissed him!). And he came to the attention of Sioux Chief Henry Standing Bear. The Sioux were irritated by Mt. Rushmore – a memorial to white men in the Nation’s most sacred tribal ground. They approached Korczak with the proposal to build a monument that would honor the area’s displaced earlier settlers.

Korczak lived for a time at the Pine Ridge Reservation (Sioux capital), studying and listening and forming a mental picture of their hero, who would never allow photographs of himself. He continued his research until he went off to war, where he was wounded and suffered the back injury at Omaha Beach that would later contribute to his mortality.

In 1947, the metamorphosis was complete – Korczak left Connecticut behind and moved permanently to the Black Hills for the rest of his life. There he took a wife — a disciple 18 years his junior — and together he and Ruth produced five boys and five girls. At the end of their 32 years together, Korczak said to Ruth on his death bed: You must work on the mountain-but go slowly so you do it right. Today, 28 years later, Ruth and seven of the ten kids (and some grandkids) devote their full time and energy to keep the dream alive. The change in his life is exemplified by the two pictures below, one taken when he left West Hartford and the other taken well into his quest.

Korczak began with a 741 step wooden staircase to ascend the mountain and a jackhammer. The first blast, in June of 1948, removed 70 tons of the estimated 7.5 million tons to date. The face was dedicated in 1998. A tunnel blasted below begins the top of the horse’s mane and the underside of Crazy Horse’s pointing arm. The complex consists of much more than the monument – visitors’ center, museum, education complex, sculptor’s studio, etc. It was as crowded at Rushmore the day we were there and boasts over one million visits a year.

Korczak refused to take a penny of salary during his tenure on the project, making life much harder for the family. He and the foundation have refused repeatedly to accept government grants. Almost 200 people are employed to work on the mountain, but the timetable continues to remain amorphous and at the whim of fund raising.

Korczak willingly dedicated the second half of his life to keeping his promises to the American Indian people. While he obviously instilled in his family the love of the project and the virtue of hard work, I’m sure I’m not the only one pondering its future after Ruth, now 84, joins Korczak in the happy hunting ground. Personally, I’m pulling for it!

I’ve left a lot of stuff out (aren’t you glad?). So many of our experiences open doors to wider ones. But here’s a postscript. The museum included the following two pictures, featuring the White Buffalo and White Buffalo Woman. If you’ve read our North Dakota segments, you’ll see with us how what goes around comes around!

Back from the mountains, we enjoyed several additional experiences closer to the campground. About two miles down the road is Ft. Hays. Signs all along the highway extol its virtues, but the one that said All you can eat pancakes: 99¢ was irresistible. It is the epitome of “tourist trap;” at the same time, it turned out to be a very neat experience. Huge pancakes are served in a buffet line – you start with two and it’s hard to find room for more. Sausage patties and sausage gravy are available at skimpy prices. You eat with plastic tableware off tin plates! The same dining room takes on an entirely different atmosphere later in the day, when the Chuckwagon Supper and Music Show is presented, one following the other. In between, BBQ beef sandwiches are the menu for lunch.

But the food is only the beginning. The location is the official home of the set for Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves. The fort played a key role in the film, and much of the set remains. D.W.W. was shot throughout the area (and partly mid-state near Pierre), but here’s where you get the documentary about it and all the souvenirs you can carry. There is also a string of actual working industries at the site, reminiscent of the original real fort, including a tinsmith, a rope maker, a brick kiln and a blacksmith, all with artisans making things for sale. The tinsmith also supplies the restaurant with its plates.

But wait . . . there’s more. Ft. Hays is also the departure point for all-day tours in modern buses that take in Mt. Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Custer State Park, the distinct features of the landscape, and scenic byways. It starts with an expanded breakfast and ends with the dinner and show. We left it at the breakfast and grounds tour!

Another nearby venue was Bear Country U.S.A, a zoo without cages. We had driven through a “safari” complex in Warm Springs, GA a couple years ago, where animals of all sizes and level of domesticity (from lions and emus to pigs and geese) were fed by the customers. We even opted to drive through in one of their vehicles to save our paint job! This experience was very different; there were only about a dozen species and they each had their own roaming area. But they ranged from big horn sheep and mountain goats to elk and mountain lion to bison and, of course, black bears. And no feeding allowed. Most of them were just nice to see, but the bears put on quite a show. And a “babyland” enclave at the end with created habitats – which also featured a pair of grizzlies — was informative.

Out to the east of town is Ellsworth Air Force Base. We’ve done other bases, including NASA/Houston, but this one fascinated us for two reasons. One, it is the home of the B1B bomber fleet. Two, it was the command headquarters for the Minuteman Missile program. We’re glad we took the tour.

Its Air and Space Museum occupies two hangars at the edge of the base, outside security. One of the behemoth bombers sits in a circle in front of it, flanked by a Minuteman and about thirty other planes. The exhibit includes a sister ship of the Enola Gay, as well as the B-25 Mitchell that was refitted to serve as General Eisenhower’s personal transport in the Theatre, which was brought here in 2008. (Incidentally, Hap Arnold used a similar refitted plane as his transport.) President Ike also came to the field in 1953 to re-dedicate it to its current name, that of Brig. Gen. Richard Ellsworth, commander of the 28th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, who tragically perished with a crew of 23 in Newfoundland while returning from in a routine mission in Europe.

The base tour had a nominal charge, but the salient feature was a personal identification and a search of a national database to make sure you weren’t a bad guy. Before entering, the bus driver has to go into an admin building and check the results! Through the gate, we are toured mostly around the military community – housing, recreation, entertainment facilities and the like. We sensed that all of the support services were civilian contracts. We never saw an active plane, a maintenance center, a runway or a pilot briefing room! But we did get a thorough look and detailed explanation of the days when the area was rife with silos filled with ICBMs aimed at the Soviet Republic.

Missile Central was a training site. It was a full-blown silo and command center. On its tarmac was a transporter-erector that bought the missiles to the site and dropped them into the hole, which had multiple security systems on its hatch. The body of the missile was brought in this way, but the warhead and control system were brought in separately and assembled on site. We descended into its bowels, more easily than the actual crews had to because the trainers wanted an easy stairway! We only descended about twenty feel, but there was another sixty or more of the giant war machine below us. The pointing system, when compared to today’s technology, was stone-age. An azimuth circled the wall, and adjustments were made against it. It took over thirty minutes to aim the beast for launch. Nevertheless, if it, or any of its 150 cousins in SD or 1000 nationwide, had been launched, each would have delivered a destructive load equivalent to 66 Hiroshima bombs. A toast to stand-downs!

The museum itself was underdeveloped, but much of its central theme involved the Berlin Wall and its elimination. The base has continuously won awards for its readiness.

We weren’t done. We’d seen numerous signs on our way down town pointing to the Journey Museum. So we decided it was a must-do as part of our visit. Wow!

The Journey Museum is a trip through time. You’re greeted in the lobby by two of its earliest citizens. Once inside, you begin at the beginning, with a study of the geology of the western plains over the past 2.5 billion years. Next, the archeological section gives you a perspective of the past 10,000 years. You also experience the growth of the Sioux nation, followed by the infusion of Euro-American pioneers of all stripes. And if that isn’t enough, the planetarium show, currently “Into the Cosmos,” takes it even further. It’s the kind of museum you wish was in your home town – too much to see in half a day, and too much to absorb in a longer continuous session. You need to go back again and again.

Our introduction to South Dakota was very comprehensive and very rewarding.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *