Prarie Sculptors

Inspiration for Rushmore began in Nebraska for Borglum Brothers



Ken and Deb Harders helped found the Cairo Roots Museum, an organization working to erect a memorial to Solon and Gutzon Borglum near Nebraska Highway 2.

Alan J. Bartels

(This story originally appeared in the September/October 2012 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)


FOUR MILES WEST OF CAIRO, steep bluffs rise from the prairie near Sweet Creek, jutting from pasture and crop ground and facing straight out into the vast Nebraska sky. The eminent escarpment figures prominently into area history.

Locals recount the tale of an 1864 robbery when a band of Sioux led by Chief White Cloud robbed the Plum Creek railroad station and got away with a load of gold bars. White Cloud was shot while fleeing, hid the loot in a hollow tree, died and was entombed in the bluff, the legend says.

Folklore is often a blurring of actual events and fading memories, and in this case, it just might be true.

A 1907 edition of The Cairo Record recounts the discovery of a mound on the bluff. When excavated, a human skeleton with a headdress that included an eagle skull was found, along with a powder horn complete with 22 carved notches indicating how many enemies the chief had killed. Although treasure hunters have searched for decades, the lost Lakota gold has never been found.

Solon Borglum, who settled nearby in 1885, didn’t find any gold, but he did treasure the land. In fact, this landscape inspired him.

His father, a Dutch woodworker turned physician who came to Fremont in the 1860s, traded California holdings for 640 acres in Nebraska. Sixteen-year-old Solon was eager to prove himself. He moved to this new land, lived in a dugout and prospered.

Solon sent money to his older brother, Gutzon for art lessons, and began sculpting large figures in the bluff’s southeasterly face that could be seen for miles. Gutzon saw the carvings during an 1890 visit. The brothers then teamed up, creating human faces and animals like bison and deer. Mistakes were easily remedied by rubbing a hand over the imperfection and crumbling the cliff wall like an eraser to a blackboard.

The Borglums’ work was still visible as late as 1906, but wind and rain have since erased their sandy canvas.

Solon quit ranching to pursue art full time, studied in France and became skilled with wood, bronze and marble, earning the nickname “le sculpteur de la prairie.”

At the Aces & Eights Coffee Cafe in Cairo, we heard that Gutzon gave up painting to learn sculpting, intent on outdoing his little brother.

Solon died in 1922, and five years later Gutzon Borglum, who some say was America’s greatest sculptor, began chiseling the likenesses of Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Jefferson on a South Dakota mountaintop.

Volunteers from the Cairo Roots Museum hope to erect a marker to honor the Borglums. Applications have been approved, and the group is raising funds to install it along the highway. “Many people travel Nebraska’s Highway 2 on their way to the Black Hills each summer,” said farmer, historian and Cairo Roots Museum co-founder, Ken Harders. “Even though the faces his brother carved at Mount Rushmore will last forever, Solon’s work in the bluffs overlooking Cairo are lost to history.”

But the American stone icon recognized worldwide might have never been if the people of Cairo hadn’t first come face-toface with the artistic ability of two Nebraska boys who played in the sand, creating faces that watched over Cairo long before Rushmore faced fame.

As motorists speed by more than a century later, that same bluff, itself a magnificent natural exhibit of Nebraska art, seems to offer its monumental gallery to passersby.

For more information about the Cairo Roots Museum or to donate to the Borglum historical marker fund, go to www.cairorootsmuseum.org.


(This story originally appeared in the September/October 2012 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)

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