Heartland I: The Carving Climbing Out of the Mountain

Crazy Horse carving, September 2018
“My lands are where my people lie buried.” Crazy Horse Memorial, September 2018. Photo by kajmeister.

Korczak, the sculptor, slung his drill over his back and climbed over 900 steps for almost 40 years.  He blasted bits out of the granite mountain, day after day, grinding down the 563 -foot side to lay out room for a long pointing arm. If ever there was a visual definition of the word “surmount”–to mount upon, to prevail over–this must be it.

One man, one drill, one mountain.

Crazy Horse Memorial 1974
Memorial in 1974, when I first visited. Photo by memorial staff, copy on Pinterest.

He hadn’t gotten especially far by 1973, when I first saw the Statue-To-Be, driving across South Dakota on our cross-country trip moving from Detroit to Sacramento. Now, returning back to visit some of my old haunts in Michigan, the memorial was the first big stop on our trip through the heartland, this pink-tinged grassland of our country’s center.  Korczak’s grandchildren are now in charge, and the crew is slowly but surely pulling the image of the proud warrior out of the granite.

Crazy Ideas, Crazy Artists

Maybe there’s something about this flat, wild land that prompts crazy artists to try outlandish things. The city of Custer that nestles among the Black Hills was filled with painted buffalo statues. Buffaloes with an American flag, bikers, forests, and other buffalo. My favorite was an abstract of colors and shapes with a cross sitting outside the tiny but well-used church off Main Street.

Custer SD buffalo statue
Buffalo statue in Custer, SD. Photo by kajmeister.

We drove up from Denver through Nebraska (the faded billboard at the state border advertised “The Good Life” and “Home of Arbor Day”). The Rockies faded behind in the east as the land flattened out, uninterrupted except by the occasional train and odor of manure.  We detoured slightly west through Alliance, Nebraska which is home to two Carnegie buildings, several museums, and another crazy sculpture: Carhenge.

Carhenge sculpture, Alliance, Nebraska. Photo by kajmeister.
Carhenge viewer
Carhenge sculpture, photo by kajmeister.

Yep. Exactly what it sounds like. A man hoisted a few dozen cars up on end, all painted gray, and in the shape of Stonehenge. Using cranes rather than druidic magic,  he still evoked the Salisbury plain in this mute gray circle.

We wound through the hills, stopping near Wind Cave National Monument to tramp up and down a few nature trails for views of the prairie and to listen to the wind whistle through the grass. Mount Rushmore was literally in the way, so we stopped there as well, just as I had with my mom and cousins in 1973 and with my kids in 2003.

Rushmore, in the late afternoon sun, showed striations of rock across Washington’s broad nose and chest. The parking lot is now multi-leveled, a broad granite avenue of flags splits the multiple gift shops and food vendors. It seems very Disneyfied, very Epcot. Like the Grand Canyon, Rushmore is something everyone should see, but only once. It still looked the same to me and my wife, and we opted not to walk around the looping trail as we had before.

One Man, One Drill, One Mountain

Korczak worked on Rushmore in the thirties, among Gutzom Borglum’s crew. That may be why the Boston-born Polish sculptor’s name came up with Henry Standing Bear, who was searching around for someone to carve native heroes, faces as proud as the four presidents which the the United States put up on the other part of the hills.

My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes also.
–Henry Standing Bear

After finishing several noted sculptures (Daniel Webster, Ray Kroc, Paderewski) and after distinguished service in World War II, Korczak returned to this spot in the Black Hills, to Standing Bear, and to a vision. He would double-down on what was done at Rushmore. Triple, quadruple-down, for this statue would be not just the head but the full upper torso of the native hero Crazy Horse, plus the horse. This would be a carving like the standing Buddhas that grace mountain walls in Asia, like the Sphinx or columns in Egypt, like the Sistine chapel. This would be a carving that Korczak knew from day one would take longer than his lifetime and probably longer than the lifetime of his viewers. Even me.

Nevertheless, he hung a network of steps against the side of the rock, built a harness to sling his drill, and cranked up the old Buda compressor. He tells the story in the video at the visitor’s center, how he’d get halfway up the steps, and the Buda would break down.  After cranking it up, climbing up again, starting to drill, he’d hear it again slowly kaput it’s way off, and down he’d go. One day, nine times.

This is why the story seemed so much more intriguing to me, even in 2003, than the work crews who scraped out Washington’s nose in the 1930s. This was one stubborn Pole, going up and down the ladder by himself, for so many years.  I don’t know whether to label that stupidity, gumption, fortitude, entrepeneurship…. it certainly seemed particularly American.

Ziolkowski's BUDA compressor
Korczak Ziolkowski ‘s BUDA compressor from the 1950s, photo by Kajmeister

Compared to What

The entire carving of Washington could fit between Crazy Horse’s hairline and the crown of his nose. All of Rushmore on its side could fit within the carved head of the native chief.

The mountain is 563 feet high, which is something like the height of the entire Washington monument. The Statue of Liberty would stretch across the brave’s torso and head, while the outstretched pointing finger alone is the size of a large swimming pool.

The pyramids, with a slave force of thousands, took decades to build, as did Rushmore. Medieval cathedrals took much longer, perhaps two hundred years. Stonehenge might have taken centuries; scholars argue about methodology, so it’s hard to say. There is precedent for a vision this grand to take this long.

When I told work colleagues that I was taking my family to see the memorial in 2003, one said, “Have they finished that yet?” It was a comment spectacularly devoid of a sense of vision. They? It was one guy for decades, dragging the drill. They? Are we imagining a corporation, a Disney-full crew of workers paid overtime on holidays? Even now, this is a crew of 15.  And they take donations only, no federal or state money.

The Original GoFundMe

Korczak was insistent from the  beginning that he would accept no federal funding. He turned down millions, more than once. He wanted to stay true to the vision, and, thinking about the change of administrations since the first hole was drilled in 1948, I can see how right he was. Imagine one indifferent National Park Administrator, deciding that they’d stop once the head was done or cancelling the project altogether. Or changing from proud Crazy Horse to a circle of different “types of natives” or a Lakota Warrior shaking hands with FDR.

As our two guides pointed out to me, the vision of the memorial always included three parts. The statue, the mountain, is the most visible part. But the Indian Museum of North America, the buildings housing the thousands of artifacts from the Lakota, Arapaho, Hopi, Ute, and dozens of other tribes, is a critical part of the mission. The third key is the Indian University of North America, a small but growing education center which includes a medical training center.

Lakota dancer
Lakota dancer on the veranda at the Indian Museum of North America at the Crazy Horse Memorial. Photo by kajmeister.

I was bitten by the bug back in 2003 on that second visit. The idea of these folks building this up without federal funding and staying true to the core of their vision as they did it was unlike anything I’d heard about. I donated a little, here and there, and was even more surprised at the response. I get a handmade Valentine’s Day card each year with a scrawled message to come visit the center or a simple thank you. I’ve spoken with the regional fund-raising guys who’ve also personally thanked me more than once, and they say this is also part of the ethos of the place.

When we visited, our charming host Ariel walked us around the museum and the sprawling visitor center, which also houses Korczak’s workshop and remnants of the family home.  She spent as much time with us as we wanted. Never a single hint about more funds.

This is not the only place I dribble bits of money to, when I have it. Every other nonprofit holds fundraising galas, and events where the purpose is to ask for more money. Crazy Horse sends me brochures showing progress. This visit included a free van ride up the side of the mountain as a perk, and we took full advantage.  Like everything else involved with this project, the gestures were sincere and simple. You could wonder at “what’s taking them so long” only until you come out here to marvel yourself.

Crazy Horse 2003 plus my family
2003 family visit to the mountain, photo by kajmeister

Transformation of a Lifetime

When we were here with the kids 15 years ago, we didn’t go up the side of the mountain. You can infer from the photo that they were a little antsy. The ear puller in the yellow shirt is now now studying quantum physics in graduate school. The goofball in pink is hauling sofas and ringing up sales working a customer service job, waiting to finish her music education degree. I would have liked for them to see the progress, but they will need to get the urge as I did, since I had little interest at 13, myself.

It was the second visit that did it, that led to my interest, and the third visit. This time we did take the slow van ride up to the top. The views up 563 feet were spectacular on a blue sky day. Joe, our pleasant guide, told us a very smart thing. We saw the stairs, the brand new crane, the imaging and modern drilling equipment as we walked out across the arm-to-be. But he told us not to turn around as we passed the face, not to look until we saw it in full.

Crazy Horse carved head.
Crazy Horse head, 87 feet high. Photo by kajmeister.

My heart still beats a little faster, remembering that moment. The eyes alone are my height, graced high above where I could reach. The rock is strongly pink with caramel-colored stripes, a surprise as it emerges from of these black and grey hills. Hawks and turkey vultures were circling overhead, and you could see the Welcome Center and the university far off and away.

Joe told us that they’ll probably end the van rides in a year or two, maybe less.  Once they have the arm scoped out, you would not be able to stand on it to gaze in mute admiration. The finger is almost completed now.

I plan to come back in twenty years or so, still alive then, I hope. I don’t think it will be quite finished, but maybe the horse’s head will be done. This will surely take another fifty years, so maybe my children will see it complete in their lifetime. Or my grandchildren–not yet born, not yet in the works, years away yet–maybe they’ll see the vision in full, and they can say that their grandmother saw the mountain before it was out.

We stayed to see a laser show, blinking high-tech 3-d owls and deer running across the mountain face, hearing Korczak’s voice talking about the BUDA and Henry Standing Bear describing his vision. The presentation, like the rest of the visit, was unpretentious. It ended with a colored outline of the sculpture to be, which lasted even after we’d driven from the parking lot and up highway 16 once more. The moon rose over the mountain, watched by those ten foot high eyes.

Not done yet. Soon enough.

Crazy Horse light show
Crazy Horse light show, photo by Karin Kallmaker


6 Replies to “Heartland I: The Carving Climbing Out of the Mountain”

  1. Thanks for sharing this, it brought back memories of my family driving from WI to WA when I was a child. In no way was it a straight line trip as we meandered across the county. 2 parents and 4 kids under the age of 11, we saw the sights of so many things. I’ve never gone back to many of the sights, much preferring the memories of a family move across this great, interesting country.

    1. So true! Going back to some of the places for me has both cemented the memories and helped me understand what I saw… thanks for your coment.

  2. I’m sitting here, in my writing office, looking up at a collage of photographs I put together after a 2002 trip with my then husband and our 7 year old son across South Dakota and Wyoming. A photograph of the Crazy Horse monument and another of a small statue carved in marble that sits in the museum are prominent within the collage. Your post brought back such memories of that trip!

    In 2002, the face was finished but the arm was only starting to take shape, as you’ve alluded. From the deck behind the visitor’s center and museum, we looked through one of those viewers at the carving work as we’d missed the last van ride for the day. We saw that there was a full size bulldozer and a full size excavator parked on a ledge, below the outstretched arm in an area that will eventually be cut out. The scale of the carving is so incredibly large, in my photograph, taken from the same spot, you cannot tell that these two pieces of construction equipment are there, even with a magnifying glass. I imagine a process that will take another 100 years or more. Perhaps my future grandchildren will see the finished product…our their children.

    1. Each trip carries such special memories, doesn’t it? Although their crew is small now, the newer technology is able to move them faster. I was convinced that it might take less than a century (i.e. closer to my children’s lifetime). Part of the issue is that they had to scrape away so much of the front face that it doesn’t appear to have done much, but they’re now closer to actually carving the horse, arm, torso, etc. Hope you can see it again sooner rather than later. Thanks for the comment!

    1. Hey Minnie — thanks for the thumbs up. I loved meeting you guys as well… we actually were in Estes Park last weekend, right after a lovely snowfall, so I thought often of you guys being there and enjoying it as we did.

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