1927 statue by famed western artist A. Phimister Proctor. Modeled after artist's own mother to honor women who migrated West on the overland trails in the mid-19th century. The monument was celebrated at its dedication, but soon forgotten. The nearby village of Westport sought to claim the statue in the 1980s. Westport claims to be the birthplace of Kansas City.
Prominent western American artist Alexander Phimister
Proctor sculpted this larger-than-life bronze grouping. It was one of the
most prominent works of the Pioneer Mother Movement (1925-1940). But public
interest in the statue soon waned. Today, it is largely ignored by Kansas City
residents. Yet the city refuses to give the statue to the village of Westport, which claims to be Kansas City's birthplace.
For many years, Phimister Proctor wanted to create a
monument to female pioneers. That desire remained unformed until 1922, when he
viewed WHD Koerner’s Madonna of the
Prairie. Koerner’s instantly popular illustration
portrayed the beautiful young heroine of Emerson Hough’s popular novel The
Covered Wagon seated on a wagon box with the opening of the wagon cover
forming a halo around her face. Like Koerner, Proctor was determined not to
show a pioneer woman “plodding westward in a calico dress,” as many
pioneer monuments of that era did. Instead, Proctor depicted “another, no less
heroic side.1 Proctor
placed his Prairie Madonna on horseback. She rides side-saddle with her baby in
her lap and her sunbonnet hanging down her back. Her buckskin-clad husband, a
grizzled mountain man guide, and a pack mule accompany her.
Proctor drew on ancient scripture, Renaissance
imagery, mid-19th-century painting, and early 20th-century
illustration in his sculpture. Proctor adapted maternal imagery from George
Caleb Bingham’s famous 1851 painting Daniel
Boone Escorting Settlers Through the Cumberland Gap. Bingham’s famous
painting used the Renaissance image of Mary and Joseph’s flight to Egypt to
show American westward migration. The painter placed the Madonna on horseback at
the top of the grouping’s triangular shape. Proctor adapted this pyramidal
structure in his sculpture. By so doing, Proctor likened Pioneer Mothers to the
Virgin Mary. This emphasized the Pioneer Mother’s role in bringing white civilization
to supposedly savage Indian lands. To show his Prairie Madonna’s self-sacrifice
in migrating westward, Proctor encircled his larger-than-life bronze grouping
with a text from the Book of Ruth: “Whither thou goest I will go. Thy people shall be my people and thy God my
God.” Despite these varied cultural influences, Proctor was convinced that his
monument authentically depicted the spirit of frontier women who followed their
pioneer husbands westward.
Phimister Proctor prided himself on the authenticity
of his western-themed sculptures. Like
other leading western artists like Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell,
Proctor clung to a fantasy of authenticity. Yet their work was heavily
influenced by mythology and historical memory.
For example, to work on the Kansas City Pioneer Mother, Proctor moved his family from Palo Alto to southern
California. Proctor he was “[c]ertain that western characters would be easier
to find in Hollywood than anywhere else”2—even
though authentic frontier conditions persisted in the northern Great Plains at
the time. In Hollywood, Proctor soon
selected “an old bewhiskered gentleman” to pose for the westering family’s
trapper guide who had recently completed work as a body double for Ernest
Torrence in the film adaptation of The
Covered Wagon. Similarly, the young woman Proctor chose to
represent the pioneer mother in the Kansas City monument wore a costume of
questionable historical accuracy sewn by the artist’s wife. The model sat on a side-saddle given to the
artist by a woman who claimed--rather unconvincingly--to have ridden across the
Plains on it as a bride in 1852.
Kansas City businessman Howard Vanderslice sought to
honor his own mother and other pioneers by commissioning the pioneer woman
memorial that Proctor envisioned. The $250,000 cost ($3.4 million in 2015
dollars) was so exorbitant that Vanderslice kept it out of the newspapers.
The nearby village of Westport claimed to having
birthed Kansas City. Westport residents
believed that Proctor’s statue belonged in their community, instead. Westport business leaders and the Daughters of Old Westport urged Kansas City’s
Park Board to place the massive sculptural group on a tiny trolley island at
the heart of Westport’s business district that had been the site of their
original town. They insisted that Westport site's location on the old Santa Fe
Trail (which was built for commercial traffic to Hispanic New Mexico, rather
than Yankee overland migration) made it the most suitable location for
Proctor's sculpture of a westering Yankee family. In the end, though, the artist’s and donor’s preference for the statue to stand
on a hilltop in Kansas City’s Penn Valley Park prevailed.
Newspaper coverage of the monument was extremely
enthusiastic. Several local residents agreed
that “’This is the only kind of statuary worth a d--n.”3 Nearly 30,000 reportedly attended its 1927
Pioneer Mother monuments in other western cities, though, interest in the
statue quickly waned.
By the 1980s, residents and city leaders had chosen
to forget the statue that glorified westward expansion and depicted women as
meekly submitting to their husbands. But Westport merchants once again sought
to claim Proctor’s statue for their business district. Advertiser Tom Tupper declared that the
“gigantic statue” was only viewed “by about 16 people a year--if they can find
it.”4 Instead, the Westport businessmen proposed to
move it to Heritage Park to commemorate Westport’s 150th anniversary.
They argued it would also commemorate a Westport resident and civic volunteer
who was among the 114 killed when the skywalk of Kansas City’s Hyatt Regency
hotel collapsed near Proctor’s Pioneer
Mother monument in 1981. Tupper suggested that private donations to that
victim’s memorial fund should cover the estimated $50,000 cost to move the
statue. Westport’s business and political leaders endorsed the plan. But the
Kansas City Parks and Recreation Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to
leave the statue where Proctor had placed it a half-century earlier,
overlooking downtown Kansas City.
The Kansas City park board was determined to keep the
statue, but not to maintain it. By 2007, the Kansas City Star decried the “embarrassing weedy mess” that
surrounded the “icon of KC's frontier past,” opining that it “should be a place
for peaceful contemplation and beauty.”5 Tellingly, city officials only
discovered the neglect of the statue while surveying potential light-rail
routes through the park. Local residents who visit the park regularly remain
unaware of its existence.