CUSTER, S.D. - The crazy, audacious Polish-American who started this mountainous work died a long time ago. He left it to his wife, his 10 kids and the rest of mankind to finish.
How fair is that?
Funny thing is, blast by blast, scoop by scoop, donated dollar by donated dollar, we're doing it.
About 10 miles away from Mount Rushmore as the tourist helicopter flies, mankind's largest-ever mountain carving is taking shape. Slowly. Begun in 1948 in the Black Hills, its progress is more accurately measured in decades than in years.
The Crazy Horse Memorial will be higher than the Washington Monument. It will dwarf Rushmore; the four presidents fit inside Crazy Horse's head. The horse's head, if you include the mane, will be the size of a football field. Standing at the chin, your role is dwarf against the 90-foot-high face.
By all means, go see Rushmore if you make it this way. But Crazy Horse is just as compelling, much more dynamic. This mass of rock, finally given a face in 1998, is quickly becoming a world wonder. It's like visiting Barcelona's unfinished La Sagrada Familia, the Catholic church begun in 1884 by Antoni Gaudi. Or consider the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, which took nearly two centuries to complete (1163-1345).
Because Crazy Horse was not one to bow to authority, the Harley riders who invade during the nearby Sturgis motorcycle rally in August love it, I learn from Pat Dobbs, media specialist at Crazy Horse Monument. So do Asians, Europeans and, in particular, Native Americans. Dobbs notes the six big buses among the mass of RVs and cars in the parking area during an interview July 12. It's a slow day, he says.
"We encourage people to see Mount Rushmore first," Dobbs says. "Then you come to Crazy Horse. We're going to do our best to show you just how much larger this is."
What would possess someone to attempt such a sculpture? Korczak Ziolkowski, just after winning first prize at the World's Fair in New York City, was invited to the Black Hills in 1939 by Lakota Sioux Chief Henry Standing Bear. Rushmore was nearly complete, and the Native Americans wanted to show the world they had their own heroes. Crazy Horse, the Lakota chief who helped unite tribes to defeat Gen. George Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, was that icon.
Ziolkowski was delayed by World War II but began work in 1948. He'd actually helped at Rushmore, working as an assistant to Gutzon Borglum in the 1930s. Now that he was in charge, he thought outside the head, so to speak. Ziolkowski's plan for Crazy Horse was more grandiose. His 1/34 scale sculpture of the chief on horseback, pointing toward his lands, remains the model for construction.
He had a pretty good idea he wouldn't finish, so he coached his wife, Ruth, and their 10 children in the arts of sculpting. When Ziolkowski (jewel-CUFF-ski) died in 1982, plans for the memorial did not.
Two major factors affect the pace of work, Dobbs tells me: Weather and money. Work goes year-round unless snow and cold prevent it. Money comes strictly from private sources - visitor fees and concessions, and gifts. To retain full control, the Crazy Horse foundation, run by 84-year-old Ruth Ziolkowski, accepts no government funding.
Denny Sanford, a South Dakota banker and philanthropist, two years ago announced a $5 million challenge grant. He'll match construction donations up to that amount.
"He wants to see the horse done in his lifetime," Dobbs says.
Plans continue beyond the sculpture. The finished vision includes a university and medical school. The American Indian University of North America opened this summer on a tiny scale, with 20 students taking basic classes. Two of those students, one from Farmington and one from Alaska, plan to attend Fort Lewis College this year.
Sometimes it's hard to grasp the scale of this work from afar. I'm fortunate that Dobbs has time to take me up to the face and out onto the unfinished, 263-foot-long arm, where the immensity of the work hits you like an arrow. It's a couple hundred feet nearly straight down to where workers are excavating and bulldozing dynamited rock, working their way down to the horse's head.
The day before, I'd done the standard bus tour with driver John Cunningham, an Alabaman whose insight proves interesting and humorous during our 40-minute-long trip. He points out that it was Ruth Ziolkowski who, after her husband's death, insisted on finishing Crazy Horse's face to show everyone, particularly potential donors, some progress.
"She was absolutely right" to do that, Cunningham says of the reportedly tireless Ruth, who remains the driving force. "And she tells me that every day."
Seven of the Ziolkowskis' 10 children work at the monument. Monique, a sculptor herself, is artistic adviser. Cas is foreman, in charge of the blasting.
Yes, the pace of work can be frustrating. It took a year, for example, just to clear away one 20-foot-high bench around the three-dimensional sculpture. Since 1948, $23.8 million has been spent on the monument. Is it even half done? It's hard to say. But there's a thrill, an inspiration in watching the gargantuan work take shape, in witnessing the creation.
And if it takes a few decades more, what difference does it really make, Cas Ziolkowski will tell people. "This is going to be around for a long time."
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