Madonna of the Trail celebrated pioneer mothers

By Rosemary Fetter

In 1928, the Daughters of the American Revolution commissioned a major project to celebrate the courage of pioneer women who settled the West.  Supported by contributions from donors, the DAR funded 12 monuments along the route of the original Santa Fe Trail, one in each state through which the trail passed. Future President Harry S. Truman, at the time a relatively unknown Missouri justice of the peace and head of the National Old Trails Road Association, strongly encouraged the endeavor and attended every one of the dedications. As the new president of the association, Truman periodically drove the National Old Trails Road from coast to coast and met with members in each state to discuss improvements. Also called the Ocean-to-Ocean Highway, the road established in 1912 became part of the U.S. Auto Trail System, running more than 3,000 miles from Maryland to California. Most of it eventually became U.S. Highway 40 or Route 66.

The materials for the Madonna installations were selected before the artist was chosen and the design approved.  Created by German immigrant August Leimbach, the sculptures were cast from a composite stone called aldonite, a mixture of crushed marble, Missouri granite, stone cement and lead ore, resulting in a pinkish color. The artwork depicts a determined pioneer woman holding a rifle and clasping a baby, with a small child clinging to her skirt.  While revisionist historians maintain that the Madonna oversimplifies women’s role in the westward movement, it is well to remember that the piece was created in 1928 and financed by the D.A.R. The Madonna stands 18 feet from its base and weighs approximately five tons.

Madonna’s sculptor also did most of the artwork for the Pan Pacific Exhibition in San Francisco.

Madonna’s sculptor also did most of the artwork for the Pan Pacific Exhibition in San Francisco.

The talented German artist also provided much decorative architectural sculpture for San Francisco’s Panama–Pacific International Exposition of 1915. He created the Madonna’s design in three days at the suggestion of a monument builder and garnered $1,000 for each statue. The artist also designed larger works of art and became fairly well-known. He and his wife returned to Germany sometime around World War II, although three of his grown children remained in the United States. (One website, roadsideamerica.com, maintains that he was deported and later incarcerated in a Russian prison. If this is true, the DAR and Congress did a good job of keeping it quiet.) The artist died in 1965 and lies next to his wife in Michelstadt, Germany.

The original idea for the sculpture came from Arlene B. Nichols Moss, chairwoman of the DAR Monuments Committee, who envisioned a statue similar to one designed by Denver sculptor Alice Cooper in Portland, Oregon called Sacajawea and Jean-Baptiste (1905). As it turned out, the completed sculpture bore no resemblance to Moss’s vision.  Leimbach later related in a 1928 article for The Federal Illustrator, “The idea I had, when I modeled the design was this: The pioneer mother with her children was waiting for the father at their blockhouse in the wild West, for the father did not come home as he had promised. She, believing him to be in danger, put her little child in a blanket, grasped the gun and with the boy ran out in the field to look for the father. The gun is sketched from the gun of Daniel Boone, with his carvings on the shaft. On the ground is prairie grass and cactus brushes, also arrowheads, and on one side in the shadows, there is visible in the original, a rattlesnake, partly covered by grass.”

The inscription on Colorado’s Madonna of the Trail in Lamar reads: West face: Madonna of the Trail, N.S.D.A.R. Memorial to the Pioneer Mothers of the Covered Wagon Days. South Face: A Place of Historical Lore Noted for Indian Lodges, Shelter from the Heat, Bivouac for expeditions, scene of many councils. East Face: National Old Trail Road. North Face: In Commemoration of “Big Timbers extending eastward and westward along the Arkansas River, approximately 20 miles east and of Bent’s New Fort, later Fort Wise,1852-1856.

The inscription on Colorado’s Madonna of the Trail in Lamar reads: West face: Madonna of the Trail, N.S.D.A.R. Memorial to the Pioneer Mothers of the Covered Wagon Days. South Face: A Place of Historical Lore Noted for Indian Lodges, Shelter from the Heat, Bivouac for expeditions, scene of many councils. East Face: National Old Trail Road. North Face: In Commemoration of “Big Timbers extending eastward and westward along the Arkansas River, approximately 20 miles east and of Bent’s New Fort, later Fort Wise,1852-1856.

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