Community Unites to Restore Chief Mahaska Sculpture

Ninety years after a statue of Chief Mahaska was dedicated in Oskaloosa, Iowa’s City Square Park, the community has rallied around the monument to restore it. Spurred by receipt of an SOS! Conservation Treatment Award, the Oskaloosa Historic Preservation Commission has raised more than $34,000 from individuals and local firms.

"The community support and ease of fundraising has been outstanding," said Chuck Russell, chair of the Oskaloosa Historic Preservation Commission. "The chief has been a fixture and well known to all inhabitants for their lives, and he’s been more or less taken for granted until we found out he was in trouble. People came to the rescue with their dollars, many of them unsolicited."

The extraordinary fundraising compaign has nearly reached its $42,000 goal, with contributions ranging from $5 to $3,000. The project was also awarded funds in the first round of the new Conservation Treatment Awards by Save Outdoor Sculpture!, funded by Target Stores and the National Endowment for the Arts. Money not required for the restoration is slated for ongoing maintenance and the rededication ceremony.

The statue depicts Chief Mahaska of the Ioway tribe just over life size, and the eight-foot gray granite pedestal includes plaques describing his life and the Ioway Indians. A third plaque commemorates the dedication of the monument.

The city plans to rededicate the statue on October 16, 1999, and has invited the governor and a descendant of the statue’s subject. The commission is currently searching for descendants of the Edmundson family and the Frye family. Everyone 90 years or older will be a special guest at the event, and all high school bands from Mahaska County are scheduled to play. The Commission plans to invite the Iowa Director of Cultural Affairs to be the main speaker.

"We have one woman who is 93 years old who told us the story of being at the May 12, 1909, dedication," Russell said. "She became fussy and her mother promised that if she would only wait that they would take the cover off and an Indian would be there. She remembers how disappointed she was because it wasn’t a ‘live’ Indian."

The sculpture was identified as needing urgent treatment in an SOS! condition survey in 1994. Oskaloosa has undertaken several historic preservation projects over the years, but this is the city’s first sculpture conservation project.

mahaska.jpg (31370 bytes)The restoration was performed by Russell-Marti Conservation Services, Inc., of California, Missouri. The cast bronze sculpture had suffered extensive corrosion, probably due to heavy coal burning in the city at the turn of the century and current heavy traffic around the town square. Green and black corrosion products appeared on the statue and plaques on the pedestal. The treatment plan for the sculpture included cleaning with low-pressure glass beads; patination with dilute chemicals applied with heat; washing with water and a non-ionic detergent; and applying a protective acrylic lacquer and sacrificial paste wax. The pedestal, which had oily stains and rusty scratches, was washed with water and a non-ionic detergent, and its mortar joints were repointed.

The city plans to have Russell-Marti perform maintenance a year after treatment is completed, training local citizens to maintain the sculpture afterward. Three painters have given the first 5 years’ labor in maintaining the Chief, as well as a smaller statue in the community, according to Russell.

The sculpture by Sherry Edmundson Fry is a memorial to William Edmundson, an early Iowa pioneer. It is believed that James Edmundson, William’s son, commissioned the sculpture because he thought the image of the chief embodied his father’s frontier spirit. According to legend, William Edmundson plowed the first furrow in what would become Mahaska County after the land was ceded by the the Sauk and Fox Indians. He was the first sheriff and later represented the county in the First General Assembly.

James, his eldest son, was a lawyer, real estate investor, and banker who traveled in Europe after his retirement. It was while in Europe in 1906 that he commissioned George Bissell to create a memorial to his late father. Bissell introduced him to Fry, who was born and raised in Creston, Iowa, and it was decided that Fry should take over the commission.

The sculpture was created in Paris, France, and won the Prix de Rome, for which Fry received $1,200 a year and the opportunity to study in Rome at the American Academy for three years.

Mahaska, for whom the surrounding county was named, was born around 1784 and became chief at any early age after killing several enemy Sioux to avenge his father’s death. He was later imprisoned in St. Louis for killing a French trader, escaped, and led a raid against the Osage. Afterward, he decided that his father’s death was finally avenged, so he laid down his arms and adopted the lifestyle of the white settlers, building a log home and farming. He refused to let his braves avenge the death of an Ioway chief named Crane at the hands of Omaha Indians in 1833, and when several Ioway killed six Omahas, Mahaska assisted in their arrest. The next year one of the Ioway escaped from Fort Leavenworth and killed Mahaska.

Chief Mahaska became a symbol of the virtues of his native lifestyle and of the possibility of peace between natives and settlers. Later generations also saw him as a nostalgic symbol of the vanishing frontier. With the restoration program, his image will continue to remind passers-by of these ideas in the next century as well.

SOS! launched the Conservation Treatment Awards program last fall to help communities save their public outdoor sculpture for the new millennium. The awards are matching grants for the conservation of artistically and historically significant sculpture. Round 4 applications are being accepted through November 30, 1999, for projects in Alaska, Idaho, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. An open deadline of November 30, 2000, has been set for new applications or those who did not receive awards and wish to reapply.

For more information, contact SOS! by e-mail at SOS!2000@heritagepreservation.org or by phone at 202-634-1422 or 888-767-7285.

Photo credit: The Chief Mahaska statue before treatment. Photo courtesy Russell-Marti Conservation Services, Inc.

To see the previous Preservation Project of the Month, click here.


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