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100 Years Later, Lorado Taft’s ‘Black Hawk’ Still Stands Sentry

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Whether you call it ‘Black Hawk’ or ‘The Eternal Indian,’ Taft’s concrete giant reminds us not only of our heritage, but of the artist whose influence is still felt throughout our region.

A century after its creation, Lorado Taft's "Black Hawk" statue still looks out proudly over the Rock River Valley and nearby Oregon, Ill.

It was a cold December day in 1910 when Lorado Taft, John Prasuhn and their crew finished pouring the concrete giant. Twenty-eight men had spent 10 days working 12-hour shifts around the clock, mixing and pouring tons of concrete into a form that was protected from the cold by a sheath of muslin, burlap and steam-pipe insulators. When finished, they packed up their tools and returned to their winter homes.

As he left Oregon, Ill., Taft hoped this statue would last longer than his prior attempt; a winter storm the year before had blown down that cast. The following summer, Taft’s crew members had dug down through soil and bedrock, using shovels and pick axes, to install a massive foundation. Taft had exhausted money and materials in his efforts to craft one of the world’s largest concrete statues. It was now or never.

The monolith survived the frigid winter, and when Taft returned in springtime to peel back the mold, he and Prasuhn discovered their plan had worked. As Taft cut back the plaster and chicken mesh cast, he discovered that the intricate details in the face – the kind of details that would be his signature in other masterpieces – had set almost flawlessly in the concrete.

The statue stood solidly implanted on a bluff 125 feet above the eastern bank of the Rock River, overlooking Route 2 and nearby Oregon. As the sun set, it was illuminated by a blazing orange glow, just as it is today on any sunny evening.

Work crews stripped away the form and touched up the details in time for its formal dedication in July 1911. A century later, Taft’s somber American Indian, commonly known as Black Hawk, still keeps watch over Oregon. Today he protects the site where an ancient tree and its eagles’ nests once marked a collaboration of unique turn-of-the-century artists. Their legacy is still felt here. Like any great masterpiece, this concrete giant was a true challenge for Taft.

“[Lorado] wondered how a great statue could be erected, high up there above the river,” wrote Taft’s wife, Ada, in her biography of him. “He knew that a figure in such a location must be large enough to be seen from a long distance; it must seem to enfold the whole pageant of life below.”

Locals know this famous statue by many names – “The Eternal Indian” and “Black Hawk” are the most popular. The statue itself is nearly 50 feet high, one of the tallest concrete sculptures in the world. Poured with 412 barrels of Portland cement, it hardened into 238 cubic yards of concrete with over two tons of steel reinforcement. The steam engines that helped to cure the statue pumped some 65,000 gallons of river water.

Before the statue was poured, workers hoisted a full-scale clay and plaster mold to create the concrete castings. (Illinois Department of Natural Resources photo)

This was neither Taft’s first foray into concrete sculpture nor his only lasting work. He was nearly named the sculptor to build Mount Rushmore, and his 1903 book, The History of American Sculpture, became the foremost text on the art for some 65 years. His public and private works span the country, from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, but his most significant art is visible right here in the Old Northwest Territory.

Taft was born in 1860 in Elmwood, Ill., a small town about 20 miles west of Peoria. His father joined the faculty at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, when Taft was a boy. After finishing his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Champaign, young Taft studied at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, a premier art and architecture academy that emphasized classical forms and intricate details.

When he returned to Chicago, Taft established his own studio there and began teaching at the Art Institute of Chicago. He was known as a dynamic and energetic teacher, passionate about classical sculpture. He began receiving commissions and designed, with his students, public fountains, war memorials and cemetery monuments. His work on the Horticultural Building at Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition earned him a national audience.

The connections he built as an instructor at the Art Institute, and later at the University of Chicago, led him to Oregon, then a favorite summer retreat for Windy City elites. Gov. Frank Lowden, married to the heiress of the Pullman railcar fortune, summered there, as did Wallace Heckman, a Chicago lawyer whose famous clients included the Art Institute of Chicago and oil baron John D. Rockefeller.

During the summer of 1898, Heckman opened his Oregon estate to a group of artists, poets and architects who were searching for a summer retreat of their own. He agreed to lease 15 acres to them for a new art colony. The original 11 artists and their guests could stay on the land as they pleased, so long as they paid him $1 a year and offered two art lectures per year to the nearby city. The group called its colony the Eagle’s Nest, named for a gnarled old tree along the bluff that was filled with nests.

Some artists, like Taft, constructed studios and cottages right away. Others lived in little more than shanties or tepees while they spent their summers searching for inspiration in the wilderness, where Lowden State Park and Northern Illinois University’s Lorado Taft Campus now exist. From time to time, the artists hosted plays and entertained celebrated artists and other visitors, such as E. Thomas Seton, founder of the Boy Scouts of America.

“I describe them as living like hippies,” says Dale Hoppe, director of the Taft Campus. “It was a fairly unstructured, Bohemian lifestyle. They enjoyed dressing up and creating costumes. If an Egyptologist visited, they would dress up in Egyptian costumes. They were famous for this. One year, most of the men went someplace together, leaving behind just one man in the colony. When the men got off the train and returned to the colony, all of the women were dressed like members of a harem, sitting at the feet of the one guy who had been there all summer.”

Eagle’s Nest was a place for nurturing the creative spark. Many of Taft’s sculptures were inspired by the colony’s creative atmosphere. In his first summer there, he created “Despair,” a plaster sculpture of a nude woman bowed over, face buried in her hands, hair flowing down. A poem of the same title, apparently written by Taft, cites colony poet Horace Spencer Fiske. The author laments: “Though bowed above thine everlasting grief/Thy loosened locks in sorrow dropping low/Thy Greek-like beauty touched with secret woe.”
It was in this unique environment that Taft began dreaming of a grand statue.

“The artists would walk along the ridge from their art colony area to Heckman’s house for dinner and events,” says Hoppe. “They would find themselves pausing right where the statue is, because that’s where the eagle’s nest tree was, and they would stand in the evening over there, arms crossed, watching the sunset. And it occurred to Taft that people had undoubtedly done this for generations, long before white men came to this area. He had this idea of building a monument to the Native Americans who had preceded him.”

Taft had worked in concrete before, but never on this scale. For help, he turned to Prasuhn, a former student, for engineering knowledge. The two men devised several working models before constructing the massive plaster shell. The statue is built like a concrete smokestack, hollow on the inside. The head, nearly five feet tall, was poured in place above the body.

Preparing for the pour was a major challenge. After the first cast was destroyed, crews spent the summer of 1910 hollowing out six feet of soil and another three feet of bedrock to anchor the statue foundation. They built a complex wooden form to hold the plaster and chicken mesh cast, and they raised a giant clay-and-plaster bust. As the work progressed, Taft ran into supply problems and money shortages, forcing delays.

“September turned into October, and October turned into November,” says Hoppe. “Taft’s crews started pouring in November and the concrete froze, so they went down to the Schiller Piano Factory, which is now Conover Square, and borrowed a steam engine. Taft wrapped the entire thing in piping and muslin and burlap in order to insulate it, and started pouring again. They did one continuous pour over the next 10 days.”

When the work was completed, Taft and Prasuhn packed up and headed to Chicago for the winter, returning to Oregon in springtime to discover the nearly-flawless casting.

Early that July, Heckman, Taft and members of the artists’ colony dedicated and unveiled what the formal invitation and local newspaper articles called “Lorado Taft’s Black Hawk.”

Did the sculpture really depict Black Hawk, the famous Sauk warrior? The face of the statue bears little resemblance to other depictions of him, and legend suggests that the statue combines Fox, Sioux and Mohawk traits. Taft himself was no help in answering the matter.
“I’ve had my say, yonder,” Taft said during the dedication. “I might add that if I did anything spontaneously, it was this. It grew out of the ground. That is what I hope it may suggest.”

Taft’s and Prasuhn’s work of art was heralded as a revolution in concrete technology. This feat was part of the justification for transforming Heckman’s estate into Lowden State Park in 1945. The statue received a cover story in Scientific American magazine in 1912 – not too bad for “an experiment,” as Prasuhn described it in that article.

“The first thing you have to remember is that it was built in Wallace Heckman’s backyard,” says Hoppe. “It was a gift to Mr. Heckman for supporting the art colony. We can’t even imagine today that something that large would be in somebody’s backyard.”

The backyard monolith was Taft’s most enduring and beloved contribution to our area, but it’s not the only mark he left behind. Taft was an educator who enthusiastically shared his passion for art with local residents, through art associations and lectures to various groups. And, as part of the Eagle’s Nest lease, the artists invited the public in to view their artwork and performances.

Taft knew that the common farmer or laborer rarely shared his passion for art, but his “Clay Talks,” as he called them, gave audiences something to watch while listening.

“People get bored just listening to someone talking; they like something to watch,” says Hoppe. “So Lorado Taft would take a lump of clay and, while he would talk about the importance of art and culture in day-to-day life, he would make a baby from the lump of clay. As he kept talking, he would keep manipulating the clay until he had a young girl, and then he would age this young girl until it became an old woman. At the very end, he would scoop out her teeth, punch her under the jaw and she’d look like an old hag. It gave people something to watch, and therefore they would stay and listen to his talk.”

He gave an estimated 1,500 Clay Talks around the country during his lifetime, and he also lectured and socialized with the Rockford Art Association, a forerunner to present-day Rockford Art Museum (RAM).

“It makes sense that he would have had a relationship with the Rockford Art Association because it was the closest one to Oregon,” says Sarah Bursley McNamara, RAM’s corrdinator of community relations. “At that time, there were art associations in major cities all over the country. Archive documents show that Rockford was well-connected with artists in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s – the same time Lorado Taft was here.”

RAM still recognizes Taft’s local impact, with two plaster castings on permanent display. The statues were meant to be cast in bronze but never were, according to museum documents. Titled “Knowledge” and “Despair,” they were donated by Taft’s wife after his death, and remained in storage until they were restored in the late 1990s.

In Oregon, a 1916 war memorial called “The Soldier’s Monument,” designed by Taft and two Eagle’s Nest architects, graces the Ogle County Courthouse lawn, honoring some 3,500 Ogle County veterans of the Civil War, Spanish-American War, War of 1812 and Mexican War. Visitors to Oregon’s Mix Park can still find a 1913 fountain named “The Fish Boys,” in which two boys kneel at the side of a shallow pool, each smiling and holding a large fish with water flowing from its mouth.

The Eagle's Nest Gallery at Oregon Public Library. (Chris Linden photo)

Other Taft sculptures are found on the grounds of the Chicago Art Institute, and in Washington Park, near his University of Chicago studio. Taft’s open-armed 1929 “Alma Mater” greets University of Illinois students outside Altgeld Hall with the inscription: “To thy happy children of the future, those of the past send greetings.”

The legacy of Taft and the Eagle’s Nest Colony finds a home at the Oregon Public Library. The 1908 Carnegie-funded library was designed by brothers I.K. and Allen Pond, Chicago architects who were members of the original art colony.

A specially-designed gallery on the upper level was built to display the summertime works of the colony. Today, it’s a shrine to the city’s artistic experience, filled with paintings and sculptures, including a four-foot tall working model of the Black Hawk statue.
“This is something of a hidden gem, because not a lot of people know it’s here,” says Marsha Zaccone, library director.

Many of the library’s pieces depict scenes from the bluffs at Eagle’s Nest, while others depict portraits and European landscapes. It’s an impressive collection for a library, says Zaccone. Some of the library’s pieces have been displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago.
“We have a number of art collectors who come in and say they just came in to see a piece by this artist or that artist,” says Zaccone. “Many of them collect a particular artist. People in the know definitely know about this collection.”

The library’s most recent acquisition is thought to be one of Taft’s last pieces. Betty Croft, a member of the library board, recently helped a friend to acquire a bronze model of “Aspiration,” intended to be a grave marker for a wealthy Chicagoan’s son.

“I asked how much it was going to cost, because it was for sale on an Internet auction,” says Croft. “My friend is writing a biography on Taft, and she said the bid was $320. I knew it would cost far more than that, so I told her what I had in my checking account and said we should go for it. She called me the next morning and said we got it.”

Shortly after Croft donated the casting, Zaccone got a call from a Chicago man who wanted to donate a small plaster model of “Aspiration.” Parts of its arms are missing and reveal the wire supports inside.

“This man called us after reading an article about our statue in the newspaper,” says Croft. “It was damaged, but we thought it belonged in the library.”

Visitors to this unique gallery also find a working model of “The Blind,” a statue originally inspired by a play performed one summer at the Eagle’s Nest. Based on Maurice Maeterlinck’s “Les Aveugles,” the statue depicts a dozen blind people, some with eyes closed and others with no eyes at all. One woman holds a baby, whose eyes are open. A later bronze casting is on display at the University of Illinois.

“The statue is based on a play that the colony gave in French, or as Taft described, ancient French, up on a hill,” says Croft. “Taft was so amused hearing them going around repeating their lines in French, that he sat up on the hill and drew the sketch that led to the statue.”

Taft died in 1936, just a few weeks after dedicating his final statue, a Lincoln commemorative in Quincy, Ill. With his death, the Eagle’s Nest colony faded away; the last member died six years later.

By the 1950s, Harry Nurmet, a spirited Estonian immigrant, had formed a new group of Oregon-area artists. He called it the Eagle’s Nest Art Group, in honor of the original colony. That group continued for several decades. By 1998, the second iteration had formed. For the past decade or so, the modern-day Eagle’s Nest has included 40 to 60 area artists who gather for weekly painting sessions and occasional group workshops.

“We’re similar in that both groups were a coming together and nurturing of artists,” says Marsha Behrens, one of the women who reinvigorated the group in 1998. “The Eagle’s Nest colony members came into town, did lectures, donated their artwork and used their architecture to make sure that the arts would be celebrated. Our group is a celebration of the artistic product and the nurturing of our art.”

Elsewhere in town, artists are halfway finished with their 10-year goal of installing a new sculpture around Oregon each year. Every summer, artists converge on nearby farms for the week-long Fields Project, during which they create art in the pastoral scenery, and some mow field designs onto 5-acre palettes of grassland.

As Taft’s works approach their 100th birthdays, there’s growing awareness about their value to the community and the need to preserve them. Oregon’s war memorial is stained and cracked. Black Hawk is showing cracks and his elbows are crumbling.

The statue has undergone several repairs over the years. Prasuhn repaired the elbow after it was struck by lighting in the 1940s. In the 1990s, workers repaired hairline cracks that ran up and down its length. According to a 2008 study funded by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the statue is structurally sound but requires nearly $400,000 worth of surface repairs.

Frank and Charron Rausa want to make sure the statue receives those repairs and stands for another 100 years. Since the Sterling, Ill., couple read about the study in a newspaper article, they’ve been drumming up interest about the statue and its preservation. As a former history professor, Frank appreciates the statue for many reasons.

“You think back a hundred years ago, about a statue to commemorate Native Americans, and that was not universally accepted,” he says. “It was a work of art by Lorado Taft, who was a noted sculptor, and it was an engineering feat, too.”

The couple helped to get the statue listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009. There’s no government funding available for repairs, so they’re turning to private donors.

“We started thinking about this project, and then we realized that it was the American people who funded repairs to the Statue of Liberty,” says Charron. “That wasn’t done with government funds. That was done by donations. If we get things going, we can do this for Black Hawk, too.”

So far, their efforts have netted about $37,000, all of which is set aside in a special Black Hawk fund through the Illinois Conservation Foundation. The fund also receives help from the new Oregon Trail Days festival, which donates a portion of event proceeds to the cause.

It’s still one of Oregon’s big tourist draws, and this summer promises even more attention, as the city prepares for the statue’s 100th birthday. A special commemoration is set to coincide with the Oregon Trail Days festival, July 15-17.

As a member of the library board, Croft, now 84, has spent 10 years sharing historical details and sites with tourists. She’s spent summers sitting in an information booth on the courthouse lawn, chatting with tourists. Croft also visits the statue, sharing stories and historical information about Taft, the art colony and Oregon. She still is amazed to see how the concrete giant draws visitors from around the nation and beyond.

“The best time to be up there is the Fourth of July, because the tourists come there for the summertime holiday, and a lot of people end up at the statue,” says Croft. “One of the days I was up there, I talked to 46 people, and the following year I talked to 56 people, while standing at the base of the statue. That second year, they were there from Anchorage, Alaska; Washington, D.C.; New York City; Arizona; West Virginia and other far places. And then, a week later, I was up there and someone was there from San Francisco. They were here from sea to shining sea right up there at the statue. They come from all over.”

Help Repair the Statue

To donate to the Black Hawk statue repairs, visit www.ilcf.org and specify “Black Hawk Statue,” or send a donation to:
Illinois Conservation Foundation
Attn: Friends of Black Hawk Statue Fund One Natural Resources Way
Springfield, IL 62702

Original Members of the Ealge’s Nest Art Colony

According to documents available at the Ogle County Historical Society, 11 painters, sculptors and writers signed the original lease for the Eagle’s Nest Art Colony:

Charles Browne, landscape painter and teacher at the Art Institute of Chicago, Taft’s brother-in-law (1859-1920)
Ralph Clarkson, portrait painter (1861-1942)
Hamlin Garland, author, Taft’s brother-in-law (1860-1940)
Charles Dickenson, musician
Henry Fuller, novelist (1857-1929)
Oliver Dennett Grover, landscape painter (1861-1927)
I.K. Pond, architect (1857-1939)
Allen B. Pond, architect (1858-1929)
Horace Spencer Fiske, poet, lecturer, professor at University of Chicago (1859-1940)
J. Spencer Dickerson, newspaper editor (died in 1933)
Lorado Taft, sculptor (1860-1936)

Find Taft’s Works

“Despair” (1898) and “Knowledge” (1902), Rockford Art Museum, Rockford
“The Blind” (1908), working model at Oregon Public Library. Bronze casting at Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
“Black Hawk” (1911), Lowden State Park, Oregon
“The Fish Boys” (c 1913), Mix Park, Oregon
“Fountain of the Great Lakes” (1913), outside courtyard at the Art Institute of Chicago
“Soldiers’ Monument” (1916), grounds of Ogle County Courthouse, Oregon
“The Fountain of Time” (1922), Midway Plaisance, Chicago
“Alma Mater” (1929), University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Eagle’s Nest Art Collection, Oregon Public Library

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2 responses to “100 Years Later, Lorado Taft’s ‘Black Hawk’ Still Stands Sentry”

  1. Laura Priester says:

    enjoyed historical & artistic information very much

  2. Diane Fisli says:

    I remember many picnics our family would spend at this park, and I always enjoyed walking up to the Black Hawk statue. Thanks for the terrific history of this wonderful sculpture and of Lorado Taft, an incredible artist whose this and other work I well remember from my days of living in or near the great city of Chicago.