Crazy Horse Monument, after a half-century of toil,
and blasting away of over 8 million tons of granite.
Black Hills, South Dakota - The phone call came with little notice, and Monique Ziolkowski rushed to prepare for the guest. He was in the area, and he would like to stop by and see her family's work, and would she kindly show him around? She had spent nearly 40 years on this mountain in a corner of South Dakota, and though her father and mother had given her a world of knowledge, she was excited to receive this distinguished visitor.
He wanted to tour the project which her father, Korczak Ziolkowski had started over five decades ago, a project to which her family has been intensely dedicated ever since. In 1947, more than a decade before she was born, her father moved from the highly developed society of West Hartford, Connecticut to the rugged, isolated southern Black Hills of South Dakota. He was a budding sculptor among aristocrats, and he had created several fine works - the largest of which, a 13' 6" statue of Noah Webster, took two years to carve. He came to South Dakota on the invitation of the Sioux Indians, to carve a memorial for them. He had felt that the way our ancestors had treated the American Indians was "the blackest mark on the escutcheon of our nation's history" so he promised them a memorial, and he died while keeping that promise.
"He loved beautiful music, and he was disappointed that, by raising his children here, we wouldn't know museums or symphonies or art." The New Englander had turned into a mountain man, but he remained well cultured, as he wanted his children to be. "He taught us how to travel, and enjoy the arts," Ziolkowski says. "He showed us how to use the right silverware - to serve from the left and pick up from the right - yet he also taught us how to get along in the woods." During a trip to New York City, father and daughter went shopping, and he bought her a dress and a pair of high-heeled shoes. Inside a hotel room, surrounded by huge, concrete and steel statues of metropolis, the old sculptor watched his young daughter hobble on lady's shoes. Having raised her in the Dakota woods, he rounded her life - like polishing one of his statues - by teaching her how to walk in heels. "He was a sculptor," Ziolkowski says, "so he knew what it took to adjust for the height of your heels."
Growing up, each child had a job to do, whether it was carving the mountain, repairing the roads, or working in the gift shop, museum, restaurant, ticket booth, or the family's sawmill and dairy farm. "I started working when I was about 16," says Ziolkowski, "and my brothers started when they were 9 or 10." Out of an isolated hillside, the family built a little community, with a post office, even, and this is possibly the only family in the U.S. with their own zip code (57730.) In 1982, the year that Korczak Ziolkowski died, over one million people visited the mountain. There is always plenty of work to do, and there will be for quite a while.
Ziolkowski, who has a 14-year old daughter, expects the project will be finished "by the time I'm a little old lady," and she may be right. Looking at the mountain, much of it has been cleared (nearly 9 million tons) but there is a tremendous amount of work remaining. As the carving progresses, each cut becomes more critical and delicate, and it is conceivable that several decades will pass before we see the dream come true. This extraordinary project will be one of very few in our history which has consumed several generations of a single family.
"Dad didn't want any of us to be here if our hearts weren't in it." But obviously their hearts are still in the project, with 7 out of the 10 children still working here. Dawn manages the visitor information center, Adam maintains the grounds and facilities, Jadwiga manages the restaurant and organizes special events, Casimir carves the mountain, Anne is the curator of the museum and manager of the gift shops, and Mark is the forest lumberjack. "We feel really lucky to be doing what we do," says Ziolkowski.
Ruth Ziolkowski is not only the matriarch of the family, but of the entire Crazy Horse organization. "Dad and Mom are the coolest people I've ever known," Monique Ziolkowski says. Though Korczak Ziolkowski gets much of the credit, he could not have achieved what he did if not for the 13-year old girl he met at an autograph session. Ruth Ross came to the session in West Hartford, Connecticut, because she wanted actor Richard Bennet's autograph, but she stopped and talked to the young sculptor "because no one wanted his autograph, and she felt sorry for him," Ziolkowski says.
Through the years, she became intrigued by the sculptor and his projects, and she helped raise money for his Noah Webster statue. They also played in a fife and drum corps. He traveled to South Dakota alone, but she joined him as a volunteer, and in 1950, they were married (he was 42 and she was 24.) While he was on the mountain, she was everywhere else, taking care of their business, in possibly one of the most rugged, romantic, love stories ever. "Dad told me, whenever he dropped a hammer, she was there to pick it up," says Ziolkowski. She helped him build the 741-step staircase up the mountain, and many of the buildings in the complex. She bore ten children ("Fertile Myrtle" he called her) and she heads the operation today.
No one knows how many sunsets Korczak Ziolkowski spent looking up at Thunderhead Mountain, urged on by a modicum of progress that day, and no one knows how many sunsets he spent on top of that mountain, carrying his work on into the night.
Knowing that he could not complete the statue in his lifetime, Korczak and Ruth Ziolkowski made up a set of three books describing every detail of the job. He had also made a 1/34 scale, 16' tall model, which Monique Ziolkowski measures in three dimensions, using a "pointer." This traditional device, used by sculptors, has a boom which swings over the model, and a string with a plumb. There is a similar device - 34 times larger - on the mountain. Ziolkowski studies the small statue, taking readings down to 1/16th of an inch, and provides the crew with the figures. This must be done every time major progress is made - blasting away at a mountain is precarious work, and a single blast can destroy decades of labor. "I suppose it's a little scary, with the enormous faith that people have in you to get it finished," Ziolkowski says. "Nobody's perfect, but you just can't give up until it's done."
Her brothers have tested computer technology, and have scanned the model into a CAD program. They use a seismograph to measure the impacts of their dynamite blasts, and they have worked with the global positioning system, but they still rely on Monique Ziolkowski's readings in the workshop. Her father carved many busts out of marble and wood, and Ziolkowski works with a foundry to have several of them cast in bronze, for sale in the gift shop. In 1993, she presented President Clinton with bronze casts of two of her father's works. She studied at the University of South Dakota at Brooking for one year, "but it just wasn't for me," she says, and she returned to the mountain. "I have always felt that I will be here - I want to be here," she says. "I have never really imagined myself living anywhere else."
"Dad didn't just want to carve a mountain that would be a tourist gimmick - he wanted to build the university and the training center," Ziolkowski says. But that phase of this epic project is out of the family's hands, as they have been charged only with carving the mountain - once that job is finished, they will have a fresh start.
Many considered Korczak Ziolkowski as an oddity - or crazy, even - but his second youngest daughter just couldn't be more proud of him. He was the man who lived and died to fulfill a promise. He was the man who taught her how to work, how to laugh, and hope and dream. He gave her manners and grace, and he opened the doors to the world for her. He was the man who set his sights on a goal so unbelievably far-fetched that no one else could have even imagined it, let alone, pursue it with such undying passion. If a father like this can't compel you to chase your dreams on a hot bolt of lightning, then nobody can.
Monique Ziolkowski loves sculpture, and she has a bond with the medium shared by very few people; She has not only worked on the largest statue in this world, but she and her family have dedicated their lives to see its completion. When they're finished, this world will not easily forget the Ziolkowskis, and on their escutcheon will be an indelible tribute to native Americans from the immigrants who took their land. It will be carved into the granite of Thunderhead Mountain, and in the souls of every man of every color. It's towering voice will humble us and remind us how fragile we are, yet how powerful we can be.
As he entered the work site in his leather jacket and blue jeans, the visitor seemed larger than life, but then Monique Ziolkowski was used to things of that scale. She was not as intimidated as you might think, as she had done this type of work before - her family was, in fact, hosting the ambassador of Germany that evening.
Wearing her red dress and a nervous smile, she awaited his arrival. He approached and greeted her mother and then herself, and she held out her hand and gave a simple greeting, one which spanned our country, from the Black Hills to the White House, one which you or I would be more than proud to give. She said simply; "Good evening, Mr. President."
And she walked and stood for the next two hours in a pair of high-heeled shoes, gracefully balancing, as her father had taught her, the histories of the red man with the white man, and the life of a girl brought up in the woods with the culture of a sophisticated lady.
President Clinton makes an extended, impromptu visit to the Crazy Horse memorial on the evening of July 6, 1999. Here, he walks with Monique Ziolkowski (left) and Ruth Ziokowski. He was in South Dakota to promote funding for the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
All photographs of Korczak Ziolkowski
and of the Presidential visit courtesy
of the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation.
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