Pioneer Mother of Kansas
Backstory and Context
In 1959, as the Kansas state centennial approached, D. K. Baty and his wife offered to pay Carlos Frey enough to enable him to complete his master’s of fine art at the University of Kansas. Learning about Baty’s project, nationally known sculptor Wheeler Williams “offered his aid and advice to the Liberal artist in this undertaking.”1
Williams would supply far more than advice.The Batys abandoned Frey in favor of resurrecting Wheeler Williams’s Fearless pioneer mother, which he had entered in E. W. Marland’s monument competition for Ponca City, Oklahoma, in the 1920s.
In 1927, oilman E. W. Marland wanted a pioneer woman monument for his adopted hometown of Ponca City, Oklahoma. He hired 12 prominent artists to make 3-foot-tall bronze sculptures of pioneer women in sunbonnets. Those bronze models then toured the country, and Marland encouraged viewers to vote for their favorites. Marland turned his favorite, sculpted by Bryant Baker, into a larger-than-life-sized Pioneer Woman for Ponca City. Marland kept the 12 bronze models until financial reverses forced him to sell them. They are now held by the Woolaroc Museum and wildlife preserve in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.
The Batys sought to celebrate the qualities portrayed in many 1920s pioneer mother monuments. But Wheeler Williams's Fearless strayed significantly from that trope. The wide-rimmed bonnet on her head evokes a stereotypical Indian brave’s warbonnet as much as it does a white woman’s calico sunbonnet. And even though the skirt of the woman’s long gown is heavily pleated, it clings to her legs in a manner that viewers in both the 1920s and the 1950s would have considered indecent. Williams’s 1920s artistic wedding of classical and cutting-edge depictions of frontier womanhood tested the limits of 1950s decorum.
1 “Student to Design New Liberal Statue." The Hutchinson News, December 27, 1959
2 “Monument to Pioneer Mothers Dedicated,” The Amarillo Daily News, June 2, 1961.
“Statue to Be Built in Liberal City Park,” The Amarillo Daily News, December 24, 1959.
Prescott, Cynthia Culver. Pioneer Mother Monuments: Constructing Cultural Memory. University of Oklahoma Press, 2019.