Frozen solid!

5:00 p.m., December 20, 1910: Pouring the “Eternal Indian” in freezing temperatures

On this date in 1910, 28 men from Oregon began the process of pouring cement into the mold that formed the “Eternal Indian” statue we know today.  A 1962 article from the Oregon Reporter listed “Charles Marriner, Charles Bullard, Rudolph Mammen and Lukie Mammen, and others” as being on the crew as the temperature dropped to 2 below zero.  (I met Rudolph Mammen’s grandson Glen Holtapp at the Oregon Candlelight Walk; he remembers his granddad talking about the experience.)  There have been variations to the many reports I’ve read of the story, so I’ve tried to sort out exactly what happened.


Everyone knows the start and end of the story.  Taft and his Eagle’s Nest colleagues frequently stood on the Rock River bluff and watched the sunset, arms akimbo, and compared themselves to Native Americans of old.  Taft observed men erecting a reinforced concrete chimney at the Art Institute in Chicago and wondered whether he could make a “reinforced concrete Indian” using the same principle.  He then talked with John Prasuhn, a student at the Art Institute with experience in concrete construction, and an engineer named Leland Summers.  (According to Ada Bartlett Taft’s book1, it was Summers who supplied such facts as that “the total movement of resistance to wind pressure through the center of gravity on an 18-foot base would be 4,830,930 pounds.”)

Envisioning a statue the height of that chimney, Taft started out by creating a sketch and then crafting an eight-inch plaster model early in the summer of 1908.  Prasuhn took the model and created a 24-inch clay mockup and two plaster casts from that.  Then Prasuhn enlarged the model to 6 feet tall.

Meanwhile, Taft and his fellow artists were trying to determine how they could display such a mighty statue to best advantage.  A 24-foot “wigwam” of tent flys and tree branches was assembled on a hay wagon and moved back and forth on the bluff, but it turned out to be too small to be seen from a distance.  Then they ran the test again with a 48‑foot-tall structure on the wagon as observers watched from the ground across the river. “This was satisfactory from a distance,” Taft said.  “We could see it from downtown.”

Taft had many projects on his plate at this time, and he himself admitted he was “happily ignorant” of all things engineering, so, beginning in the summer of 1909, Prasuhn did the lion’s share of the statue’s construction (and later wrote an extensive article for Scientific American2), detailing the entire experience). First he built a wooden central tower 38 feet tall and, using Taft’s enlargement system, began transferring the dimensions from the model.  A severe storm blew through and destroyed the structure, but the wooden pieces had been numbered, so Prasuhn was able to reassemble everything and continue.  Chicken wire netting was used to create the curves; then 200 yards of burlap was nailed over the wire for a surface.  The final shaping was done and the surface was then sprayed with a thin coat of plaster to stiffen the burlap and then a slurry of clay-water to ensure its release from the mold later on.

Prasuhn also had to locate all the items on his shopping list.  He spent much of his time locating construction materials and keeping Taft posted every step of the way.  He made a deal with the Universal Atlas Cement Company of Chicago: They would end up donating 412 barrels of cement in exchange for using the Indian’s image in their advertising.  When money got tight, Frank Lowden and Wallace Heckman also chipped in.

At the same time, Taft was building the huge – but hollow — head for his Indian next to his Eagle’s Nest cabin.  “It was an astounding thing, reaching up to the eaves,” Ada recalled.  She wrote that children at the art colony helped “butter” it – spread the clay over the framework of wood and wire.  Then Prasuhn made a plaster mold of it.By the summer of 1910, the body’s structure was ready, and Prasuhn made molds all the way to shoulder level.  He built an exterior wooden framework with “strutting, cross bracing, and hoops around the barrel-like structure, tending to equalize the outward strains that would be imposed by the cement.”  A specially constructed derrick was built to hoist and set the head, which had been hauled to the site by a horse-drawn wagon.Once the head was in position, Taft and the crew decided that it needed to be turned slightly to the right to present a clearer profile from the bluff road.  No problem!  They just jacked up the entire head from the shoulders and rotated it 15 degrees to the right. The head was hauled back down and the mold for the head was connected to the shoulders.

To make things more complicated, excavating for the base and pedestal was carried on at the same time that the body mold was being made.  The interior of the mold was patched and cleaned and then given two coatings of wall sizing and paraffin grease.  (The sizing would keep the plaster from absorbing water from the concrete, and the grease would serve as a release agent.)

When all this preparation was finished, Prasuhn removed the remaining wooden structure from the inside.  Then he built a steel reinforcing tower, 8 feet in diameter, that ran the entire height of the interior and ended in a dome just below the neck.  It was designed to support the head and shoulders, which would be filled completely with cement when done.  Thirty-eight one-inch twisted steel rods were anchored two feet into the solid bedrock with molten brimstone and red hot sand to steady the steel tower; 14 anchor rods passed up through the folds of the drapery, joined the dome structure, and then passed up into the head.  All this would serve as the scaffold from then on and retain the mold’s form.

November 10, 1910: The base was cast.  Water had to be pumped up from the Rock River, 200 feet below the site, to a 5000-gallon storage tank in the ground so the concrete could be mixed nearby.

November 14-15: The pedestal was cast.  Roughly five feet of the pedestal was above ground.

November 29: Workmen began pouring the concrete for the figure, but it was so cold, the concrete froze before it could set up, so they stopped.  Prasuhn defended his timing in the Scientific American article:

“It has frequently been asked why the final and most important work was not done sooner and in more favorable weather, or left until the following spring.  It must be remembered that the whole operation of building a heroic statue in cement was an experiment, and could progress only as each new difficulty, which arose in connection with it, could be overcome.  Delay in the material first used was perhaps the main reason for retarding work.  Taking into consideration the action of freezing weather on water-soaked plaster, the prominence of the location of the statue, and the terrific wind storms which would sweep around it during the rest of the winter, it was imperative that the building be completed, to avoid a repetition of the first year’s work.”

Taft and Prasuhn came up with the idea of heating the mold they had made: They borrowed a 16‑horsepower steam engine from the Case Threshing Company and another from the local Schiller piano factory and improvised a heating system made up of four large tubular radiators and one 26-foot steam coil, also loaned from Schiller.  A 30-foot bin, five feet high, was made to hold the gravel for mixing with the cement, and the steam coil placed inside it, on edge, to keep the gravel warm.  The radiators were placed around the outside of the mold.  The whole construction was enclosed by canvas and sheet tin, all holes plastered shut, and after a final tryout the work began again. A system was also devised for warming the 65,000 gallons of water that were being pumped up from the river at a rate of 720 gallons per hour.  (According to a 1937 Ogle County Republican article, the ice on the river at that time was 21 inches thick.  In Jan Stilson’s book on the Eagle’s Nest Colony3, she writes that a single man was stationed at the edge of the river in a small tent to watch that no delays occurred in the pumping of a steady stream of water.  When he was caught sleeping, he was immediately fired.)  Tuesday, December 20, 1910, 5:00 p.m.: The temperature on that exposed bluff dropped to two below zero.  Two crews of 14 men began pouring the concrete; they worked day and night for ten days in this sub-zero weather.  Prasuhn described the scene in his article:

“After all the preparation and trials it was a sight never to be forgotten – the two steam engines belching forth thick smoke and flame; the frozen chunks of gravel and solid bags of granite screenings being thrown into the bin and shoveled out piping hot below; the water boiling, a full steady stream being pumped from the river; the hoisting signals; a typical western blizzard blowing; and above all, the men, contented and happy, working away with clocklike regularity, each at his assigned task.” December 29, 1910:  The only breakdown of the entire project happened at 3:00 in the morning.  With the temperature still below zero, both engines suffered a temporary breakdown for half an hour and all but froze the cement that was then on a level with the eyes.  At this stage the cement was passed up to the head in pails.

December 30, 1910:  By 2:45 in the afternoon, the huge mold was full, from the body shell to the top of the enormous, now-solid head.  Heat was applied for two more days, and then the borrowed equipment was returned to its original owners.

Waiting… The statue was allowed to cure through the rest of the winter and into spring.  In early May the temperatures rose into the 90s, so the Tafts and Prasuhn rushed to Oregon and prepared to remove the Indian from his “shroud.”  Prasuhn climbed up the scaffolding and pried the piece mold off the left eye.  Ada wrote:

“It was an ominous moment.  But look!  It is the eye as perfect as in the original clay.  One can imagine the relief and joy with which my husband saw this.  If the eye, the most carefully molded part, was perfectly cast, he was reassured as to the large planes of the blanket.”Two weeks later Prasuhn and a small crew carefully removed the entire plaster mold and the scaffolding.  The effect was exactly as Taft had envisioned. Prasuhn calculated that 65,000 gallons of water, approximately 238 cubic yards of concrete, two tons of twisted steel rods of varying widths, 200 yards of burlap, and ten tons of plaster went into the creation of the “Eternal Indian” statue.  They also used 20 tons of pink granite chips for the outside covering.  Its final weight is calculated at 536,770 pounds; its final height is 43 feet 4 inches (from the end of the steel reinforcing rods, two feet in solid rock, to the top of the head it measures an even 60 feet); and it is said to be the second-tallest monolithic concrete statue in the world.

The “Eternal Indian” was dedicated in July of 1911.  It was struck by lightning in 1939.  Prasuhn was still around to supervise a repair of the damage.  (A Northern Illinois University article quotes him as recommending that “at some future time, Black Hawk might sport feathers on his head as a way of disguising lightning rods for protection of the statue.  Fortunately, this was never carried out.)

As weather and an earthquake weakened the structure, restoration efforts took place in 1945 and 1973.  On the statue’s 75th anniversary, a crew from Washington University in St. Louis repaired the surface with epoxy.  (It has since been periodically treated with water repellants in an effort to further protect its surface.)  On November 5, 2009, the National Park Service listed the statue on the National Register of Historic Places.  On February 10, 2010, another earthquake caused further damage.   As of this date, grass-roots fund-raising campaigns are trying to collect the $400,000 needed for a massive restoration.

How “eternal” is Lorado Taft’s “Eternal Indian”?  Will he be able to withstand another cold and windy winter?  Please do all you can to ensure his survival.  Send your tax-deductible contributions to: Illinois Conservation Foundation, Attn: Friends of Black Hawk Statue Fund, One Natural Resources Way, Springfield, IL 62702-1270 and write “Black Hawk Statue Fund” on your check’s subject line.

1Taft, Ada Bartlett, Lorado Taft: Sculptor and Citizen (Greensboro, N.C.: published by Mary Taft Smith), 1946, pp. 53-57.

2 Prasuhn, John G., “A Novel Use of Cement in Sculpture: How the Statue to the American Indian Was Built,” Scientific American, September 7, 1912, pages 192, 205-206.

3Stilson, Jan, Art and Beauty in the Heartland: The Story of the Eagle’s Nest Art Camp at Oregon, Illinois, 1898-1942, (Bloomington, Indiana: AuthorHouse), 2006, pp. 123-133.