Madonna of the Trail

August Leimbach, Madonna of the Trail, Springfield, Ohio, 1928

In 1911 the National Society, Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) set out to mark the “Old Trails Road” stretching from Maryland to California. Initial plans called for painted mileage markers throughout the route.  Those plans were later abandoned in favor of pioneer mother statues.  The National Old Trails Road Association (NOTR) was created to study the trails and select routes to designate.  Judge (and later U.S. President) Harry S. Truman led the NOTR and spoke at the first monument dedication in 1928.

National DAR Commission chairperson Arlene B. Nichols Moss was inspired by Portland, Oregon’s 1905 Sacajawea monument to commission twelve identical Madonna of the Trail statues to be placed in the 12 states through which the “Old Trails Road” passed.  That Sacajawea statue had been erected by suffragists to honor both Sacagawea and the (white) “pioneer mother of Oregon.”  By erecting a statue of a famous indigenous woman, its donors managed to celebrate women’s strength alongside their maternalism.  But the exclusively white DAR, operating amid increased xenophobia and anxiety over new public roles for women in the 1920s, embraced an explicitly white pioneer mother.  Like other statues erected during the “Pioneer Mother Movement” of late 1920s and 1930s, the DAR statues balanced women’s strength with softer maternal symbolism.

Alice Cooper, Sacajawea, 1905, Portland, Oregon

Sculptor August Leimbach’s larger-than-life pioneer woman steps forward boldly carrying a rifle, and her facial features appear almost masculine. The artist envisioned a scene in which she is looking for her husband whom she believes to be in danger.  All of these traits suggest that she is a strong “new woman.” Yet the title Madonna of the Trail evoked W. H. D. Koerner’s famous image of a much gentler woman crowned by a covered-wagon halo.

One Madonna of the Trail statue was erected in each of the states through which the National Old Trails Road passed, at the cost of $1,000 per statue.  The statues were placed along key white migration routes, such as the early-19th-century National Road and Santa Fe Trail (which became U.S. Highway 40 and the infamous Route 66 in the 20th century, respectively).  But the precise location of the monument within each state was selected based on both the site’s historical significance and the influence of local DAR chapters.

Site selection criteria included:

  • Town located on designated National Old Trails route
  • Local business community supported National Old Trails effort
  • Town meets population threshold
  • Town has DAR chapter
  • Town’s DAR chapter contributed to the statue program

 

Like other pioneer monuments erected throughout the country, the placement of Leimbach’s Madonna statues was shaped more by practical concerns than by symbolism or ideology.  Many Americans feel that pioneer monuments ought to face West, symbolizing settlers looking farther West for new lands and new opportunities.  But sculptors typically want their statues to face South, because that yields the best light for viewing the sculptural details on the front of the statue.  Of the twelve Madonna of the Trail statues, only four (West Virginia, Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico) face West; half face South (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, California), one faces North (Arizona) and one (Maryland) has been moved several times, always facing East.

Nearly a century has passed since these statues were first erected across the United States.  In some cases, the surrounding area has changed dramatically, while in others it remains relatively unchanged.  Five (Bethesda, Maryland; Springfield, Ohio; Vandalia, Illinois; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Springerville, Arizona) have been relocated to accommodate urban growth.  In 1956 the Springfield, Ohio, Madonna was moved aside 1/4 mile to make space for a new highway interchange.  Then in 2011 it was moved again, this time 2 miles east into the city center, where it became the centerpiece of a new downtown connector park.

In contrast to most other pioneer monuments, which were cast in bronze or carved out of solid marble, Leimbach sculpted the twelve Madonnas out of algonite, a form of cast stone produced from a mixture of crushed marble, Missouri granite, stone, cement and lead ore.  This material was more cost effective but less enduring than bronze or marble.  Most of the Madonna statues have been restored at least once.  Because these were local restoration efforts done at different times and utilizing different methods, the resulting appearance of the statues (particularly the color) differ noticeably.

Popular attitudes toward the statues are mixed.  Eight of the twelve statues have been rededicated since the nation’s 1976 Bicentennial helped to spur interest in pioneer statues.  Several are now featured prominently in local tourism advertising campaigns.  But others have been pushed aside to accommodate road construction, or have been forgotten by local residents.


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The Twelve Madonna of the Trail Statues:

Bethesda, Maryland

Bethesda, Maryland, September 2016.

Location: in front of old Post Office on Rockville Pike (GPS: 38.983932, -77.094186)

Dedicated: April 18, 1929

Historical Significance of Site: Site of the 1st military road in America

Statue Faces: East

Moved: In 1986 to accommodate road widening and construction of a subway stop, after spending 3 years in storage.  Removed for about 6 months in 2004 after a sinkhole developed, causing her to list like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Restored: 1992

Rededicated: 1986

Comments: In 2001, residents of Cumberland, Maryland, argued that the Maryland Madonna ought to be relocated to their community, which served as the starting point for the 19th-century National Road (and gave the road its nickname of Cumberland Road).  They argued that the statue was forgotten and out of place in Bethesda, which had become a bustling suburb of Washington, D.C.  But Bethesda city leaders insisted on keeping the statue, which is featured on their city’s logo.

 

Beallsville, Pennsylvania

Beallsville, Pennsylvania, June 2016. Photo by David Culver.

Location: On U.S. 40 near Nemacolin Country Club (GPS: 40.060282, -80.012953)

Dedicated: December 8, 1929

Historical Significance of Site: “Hunting ground of the friendly Indian Nemacolin” and oldest county west of the Allegheny Mountains.

Statue Faces: South

Moved: still in original location

Restored: 1990

Rededicated: 1978; 1990

Comments: The Pennsylvania Madonna was awarded to Washington County.  However, the State Art Commission of Pennsylvania refused to approve siting it on the county court house lawn because “the monument was not a work of art” (quoted in Bartlett, 697).  Nemacolin Country Club agreed to donate a plot of land, and 50 local donors (25 men and 25 women) paid for the cost of erecting and maintaining the statue.

 

 

Wheeling, West Virginia

Wheeling, West Virginia, June 2016. Photo by David Culver.

Location: Entrance of Wheeling Park, facing National Road (GPS: 40.055737, -80.669207)

Dedicated: July 7, 1928

Historical Significance of Site: Colonel Moses Shepherd, a contractor on the National Road, lived nearby.  Also celebrates Henry Clay’s support for the National Road and his role in bringing it to Wheeling.

Statue Faces: West

Moved: still in original location

Restored: 2012

Rededicated: 1979

Comments: Wheeling is located at the northern tip of West Virginia.  The National Road only passed through a small portion of the mountainous state.

 

 

Springfield, Ohio

Springfield, Ohio, October 2012.

Location: 1928-1956: Ohio Masonic Home grounds; 1957-2011: south end of Snyder’s Park facing U.S. 40; 2011-present: National Road Commons (GPS: 39.924771, -83.811197)

Dedicated: July 4, 1928

Historical Significance of Site: Near terminus of the National Road as completed in 1839.  Language on the monument’s base declares that “Three miles southwest of here General George Rogers Clark . . . vanquished the Shawnee Confederacy . . . resulting in opening the Northwest Territory.”

Statue Faces: South

Moved: 1956-57: moved 1/4 mile West on U.S. Highway 40 to south end of Snyder’s Park to accommodate a highway interchange; 2011: moved 2 miles east to downtown connector park

Restored: 2011

Rededicated: 1988 and 2003

Comments: Once pushed aside to accommodate highway expansion, in 2011 the Ohio Madonna statue was moved into the heart of downtown Springfield as part of a downtown revitalization program.  It became the centerpiece of the new $2.5 million National Road Commons, developed by the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce’s Community Improvement Corporation.

 

 

Richmond, Indiana

August Leimbach, Madonna of the Trail, 1928, Richmond, Indiana
Richmond, Indiana, October 2009.

Location: Southwest corner of Glenn Miller Park on U.S. 40 (GPS: 39.830476, -84.872207)

Dedicated: October 28, 1928

Historical Significance of Site: 1st toll gate in Indiana

Statue Faces: South

Moved: still in original location

Restored: 1988

Rededicated: October 29, 1988

Comments: Richmond, Indianpolis and Terre Haute competed to receive Indiana’s Madonna.  So confident was Indianapolis of receiving the monument that on October 27, 1927, the Indianapolis Star published a photo of Leimbach working on the statue with a caption indicating that it was to be erected by the NSDAR in Indianapolis.

 

Vandalia, Illinois

August Leimbach, Madonna of the Trail, 1928, Vandalia, Illinois
Vandalia, Illinois, July 2016.

Location: Grounds of Old State House (GPS: 38.960808, -89.094444)

Dedicated: October 26, 1928

Historical Significance of Site: Western terminus of the National Road; Abraham Lincoln began his political career in the Illinois state legislature

Statue Faces: South

Moved: short distance to corner site

Restored: 1990

Rededicated: November 4, 1978

Comments: The National Road was intended to connect the East Coast to the Mississippi River at St. Louis, but construction stopped in Vandalia, Illinois, in 1839 due to lack of funds.  Railroads soon superceded the National Road.  When U.S. Highway 40 was built in the early 20th century, it largely followed the route of the National Road constructed a century earlier.

 

 

Lexington, Missouri

August Leimbach, Madonna of the Trail, 1928, Lexington, Missouri
Lexington, Missouri, July 2016.

Location: On bluff above Missouri River (GPS: 39.186581, -93.886154)

Dedicated: September 17, 1928

Historical Significance of Site: early terminus of river transportation and starting point for western trails; site of Civil War battle of Lexington

Statue Faces: South

Moved: still in original location

Restored: cleaned in early 1990s

Rededicated: September 28, 1978

Comments: 75th anniversary ceremony held August 23, 2003

 

 

Council Grove, Kansas

August Leimbach, Madonna of the Trail, 1928, Council Grove, Kansas
Council Grove, Kansas, July 2016.

Location: Santa Fe Camp Ground (later renamed Madonna Park) (GPS: 38.662048, -96.486885)

Dedicated: September 7, 1928

Historical Significance of Site: Santa Fe Trail established at 1825 council between U.S. commissioners and Osage Indians; trading post was outfitting site for freighters on the trail

Statue Faces: West

Moved: still in original location

Restored: 2001 in preparation for 75th anniversary

Rededicated:

Comments: Monument is one of several historic sites included in Council Grove’s tourism campaign, which emphasizes its connection to the Santa Fe Trail.

 

Lamar, Colorado

Lamar, Colorado, 2005. Photo by Einar Einarsson Kvaran (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Carptrash).

Location: Main Street at Colorado Welcome Center (GPS: 38.089300, -102.619100)

Dedicated: September 24, 1928

Historical Significance of Site: Site of “Big Timbers Camp,” a haven for overland travelers and indigenous peoples

Statue Faces: West

Moved: still in original location

Restored: 2013

Rededicated: 1988, 2013

Comments: In 2013, restorers discovered a 1/4-inch deep hole about 3 inches in diameter that was believed to be a bullet hole.

 

 

Albuquerque, New Mexico

August Leimbach, Madonna of the Trail, 1928, Albuquerque, New Mexico. Photo by Anna Prescott.
Albuquerque, New Mexico, April 2015. Photo by Anna Prescott.

Location: McClellan Park facing Old Santa Fe Trail (GPS: 35.092913, -106.649823)

Dedicated: September 27, 1928

Historical Significance of Site: 

Statue Faces: West

Moved: 1998: 100 feet to accommodate construction of new courthouse

Restored: 1998

Rededicated: November 27, 1998

Comments: The New Mexico Madonna was originally intended for Santa Fe to mark the terminus of the Santa Fe Trail, but the statue was met by an angry crowd who did not believe it fit with the town’s indigenous and Hispanic heritage.  Writer Mary Austin gave an impassioned speech, and reportedly kicked Harry Truman in the knees.  Fellow writer Mabel Dodge Luhan joined Austin’s protest of the monument.  The DAR explained its choice to place the Madonna in Albuquerque instead because the statue did not fit the colonial renaissance underway in the 1920s in Santa Fe.  Rather than highlighting local history surrounding Albuquerque’s McClellan Park, the statue’s base declared the civilization (and thus whiteness) of pioneer mothers.

 

 

Springerville, Arizona

Springerville, Arizona, 2006. Photo by Einar Einarsson Kvaran (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Carptrash)

Location: Intersection of Main Street and Mountain Avenue, across from Post Office (GPS: 34.133259, -109.285118)

Dedicated: September 29, 1928

Historical Significance of Site:  Site of small Mormon settlement; Explorer Coronado passed site in 1540

Statue Faces: North (originally faced South)

Moved: Circa 1957: moved to 100 yards east to accommodate town’s first traffic light; 1987: moved from North to South side of Main Street

 

Comments: Text on base commends settlers of Arizona and the Southwest that “braved the dangers of the Apache and other warrior tribes.”  Springerville did not fit the established site selection criteria, because the nearest DAR chapter was 150 miles away in Flagstaff.  Some believe that the Arizona statue was “stolen” from Kingman, which met the selection criteria (Arizona Capitol Times, 10/30/2009).  Today, it stands on a small island squeezed between a shopping center parking lot and a McDonald’s fast food restaurant.

 

 

Upland, California

August Leimbach, Madonna of the Trail, 1928, Upland, CA
Upland, California, August 2006.

Location: Euclid Avenue at Foothill Boulevard (GPS: 34.107224, -117.651186)

Dedicated: February 1, 1929

Historical Significance of Site: Convergence of 4 trails: Mohave Indian Trail, Anza Trail, Emigrant Trail (an offshoot of the Santa Fe Trail), and the Colorado Road (used by the Butterfield Stage)

Statue Faces: South

Moved: slightly to accommodate road construction

Restored: 1980s

Rededicated: 1979

Comments: In contrast to most of the other DAR statues, Upland’s Madonna features prominently in local popular culture.  In 1930, a historical pageant made a pilgrimage to the statue.  In 2014 it served as the starting and ending point for a protest demanding more crossing guards for a nearby school.  And local columnist John Weeks mocked a parental warning issued for a nearby Shakespeare festival by encouraging readers to imagine the Madonna of the Trail nude.

 

 

Further Reading:

Helen Bartlett, “The Madonna of the Trail,” Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine (October 1969): 693-97, 730, 736.

Maureen Reed, “How Sacagawea Became a Pioneer Mother: Statues, Ethnicity, and Controversy in Portland and Santa Fe,” Public Memory, Race, and Ethnicity, ed. G. Mitchell Reyes (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010).

Maureen Reed, A Woman’s Place: Women Writing New Mexico (University of New Mexico Press, 2005).