Gutzon Borglum complained a lot about the men who worked with him on Mount Rushmore, about how he wasn't given men who knew how to carve a mountain. Borglum's son Lincoln had artistic talent, as did Bill Tallman and Korczak Ziolkowski, two assistants to Borglum who came from back East. But where in South Dakota, Borglum wondered, do you find a whole crew of workmen who know how to carve a mountain into work of art?
Working on Rushmore meant finding the right point to carve on a cliff face, blasting stone with dynamite, working with jackhammers and chisels and other equipment that weighed half as much as you did -- all while your posterior was literally in a sling, hanging over the side of a mountain. The project required mechanics and powdermen, and men who understood rock, mostly miners. The workmen had colorful names: John Arthur "Whiskey Art" Johnson, Lloyd "Lively" Virtue, Jack "Palooka" Payne, Otto "Red" Anderson, Alton "Hoot" Leach, and the Peterson brothers, Merle and "Howdy" (Howard). These were tough men whose weekends were full of drinking (moonshine during Prohibition) and fighting -- and playing baseball.
In fact, the Rushmore Memorial baseball team did pretty well against company teams from larger towns. In 1939, the year of Rushmore's largest budget, Merle Peterson helped Lincoln Borglum hire a bigger crew by recruiting good ballplayers. That year the Rushmore team represented the Black Hills in the State Championships, and made it to the semifinals.
Gutzon Borglum was proud of the baseball team, too, but he was an aloof and less approachable manager than his son Lincoln. Plus, he had a temper. Merle Peterson was fired eight times, which he thought was a record for the work crew. They couldn't compete, though, with Borglum's secretary Jean Peters, who lost track after her tenth firing, but thought the total was closer to 17. Still, Borglum had the respect of the men who worked with him. Red Anderson recalled his first meeting with Borglum: "He was working on the models of Rushmore, and the first thing that struck me was how lively the guy was. The models were maybe ten feet high and he had to work on 'em from a ladder. But when he came down off that ladder he didn't climb down -- he jumped.
"He wasn't the sort of guy you'd 'howdy' and start talking to. You waited until he started talking to you...We had ups and downs, but we were always friends. He was a bear to get along with sometimes, and temperamental as the very devil, but underneath it all he was really a good man and a great man. I always respected him, and I think he always respected me."
One cold morning the crew was huddled in one of the mountaintop shacks warming up with some coffee when Borglum burst in the door. He thundered, "WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON AROUND HERE?" When one of the laborers managed to say that they were just having some coffee, Borglum turned to his handyman and said "See to it that at about ten o'clock every morning we get some doughnuts and hot coffee up here for these bums!" According to local legend, that was how the coffee break was born.
The work on the mountain was hard, but the men had their fun. Their favorite hazing joke was to let out a little extra slack on the new guy's safety cable to drop him a few feet. There were accidents, too, but none fatal. The first big dynamite blast shot a boulder into the cable that brought supplies up the mountain. Years later, when the cable was adapted to carry men, a cable snapped and workers had to use the hand safety brake to lower themselves down again. Then one of the workmen pulled too hard on the brake chain and broke it. The car sped down the cable and a few men were thrown when it hit the base station. Amazingly, only one man was hospitalized, and he recovered completely.
Another time, lightning caused a surge of electricity to prematurely detonate the dynamite charges that were being placed on the mountain. Ernest "Bill" Reynolds was on the cliff face in and thrown out into space by the blast. His cable then swung him back into the hill. Luckily, his injuries amounted to just bruises and scratches and a temporarily blown eardrum.
A story is told of a bizarre accident which occurred one day when Howdy Peterson was "blowing off" another workman. At the end of the workday, compressed air was used to remove the rock dust that had accumulated all over the workmen's clothes and hair. Howdy was holding onto the hose when another fellow "came by and he gave me a kick. Well, in return I reached out and speared him in the butt with that air hose. And, why, I just blowed him up tighter'n a drum! I sure didn't mean to. It was a freak thing. How you could hit a guy that square-on I don't know, but it happened. ... Scared? Man oh man! I was never so scared in my life!"
Red Anderson was a witness:
"When that hose connected you could just see [his] belly swell up. He yelled, 'My God, Howdy! You've killed me!' Then he started passing the air, and when he did he passed some blood, too. That really scared him, and us too!"
The victim had been treated for abdominal cancer the year before and when his doctor examined him, he was surprised to announce that the air had loosened the abdominal adhesions that were bothering him.
The dust that was blown off the clothes wasn't strictly an external problem, though. It got in their lungs. James Champion, Hoot Leach, and Lincoln Borglum were among those whose lungs were permanently scarred by the granite dust of Rushmore. But work on the Hall of Records, a time-capsule-like vault to hold historic records situated on the back of Rushmore, was stopped not because of the dangers of kicking up so much dust in an enclosed space, but because of lack of funds.
The men made good money, but the money often ran out. Every year, there would be occasional shutdowns due to lack of funds, and sometimes the season ended in the fall with next to no money left in the Rushmore account, but as a rule, work was curtailed due to inclement weather. To their credit, when work on the mountain started again the next year, they would all quit their current jobs to be back on the Monument. The motivation to return was, in part, the pay; in part it was the camaraderie that developed; and eventually, it was the art itself. At the finishing stage of the sculpture, Borglum would invite the carvers to feel the surface of his models with their fingertips while their eyes were closed. "It was absolutely astonishing how much it helped and how much your fingers alone could tell you," recalled Red Anderson. "More and more we sensed that we were creating a truly great thing, and after a while all of us old hands became truly dedicated to it and determined to stick to it." Astonishing, too, how these miners could translate the models into a monument on living stone. Apparently Borglum had found the men who were capable of carving a mountain into art.
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