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Madonna of the Trail

Rosemary Nusbaums "Tierra Dulce" is a collection of Jesse Nusbaums favorite yarns. One of them concerns the big dust-up in Santa Fe when the proposal was made that it be the site for a statue honoring pioneer women. He called it, The Legend of the Pioneer Mother.

By Fern Lyon

Rosemary Nusbaum’s "Tierra Dulce" is a collection of Jesse Nusbaum’s favorite yarns.  One of them concerns the big dust-up in Santa Fe when the proposal was made that it be the site for a statue honoring pioneer women.  He called it “The Legend of the Pioneer Mother.”

According to Jesse Nusbaum’s legend, an arts commission was formed in Washington in order to aid starving artists after the 1929 market crash.  One of their projects, he said, was to place statues of a pioneer mother along the famous old trails across the country.  Santa Fe was to be so honored.  Dr. Nusbaum said the federal government sent Harry S. Truman out to Santa Fe plaza with one of the statues.  Santa Fe artists objected.  Mary Austin, a leader of the artists and writers, met the truck, he said, and when Harry Truman attempted to unload the statue she kicked him in the shins.  Thereupon he got back in the truck, drove the statue to Albuquerque, and put it in McClellan Park where you can see it to this day.

 Such an intriguing legend certainly merits looking into.  According to the newspapers of the time the story went like this:

The year was 1927, not 1929.  On October 4, 1927, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported that the local Kiwanis Club was hosting a luncheon at the De Vargas hotel to hear a plan of the National Daughters of the American Revolution and the National Old Trails Association to erect a statue of the Pioneer Mother in New Mexico.  Present at the luncheon were Mrs. John Trigg Moss of the D.A.R. committee and Judge Harry Truman of the N. O. T. A.  Lansing Bloom of the Historical Society of New Mexico, John de Huff of the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce and others gave talks emphasizing Santa Fe’s special fitness for the honor of receiving the statue.

Evidently it was after the New Mexican’s deadline that the fireworks started.  In an ill-fated attempt to be fair, Kiwanians had invited interested citizens of Santa Fe to join the guests and contribute their own ideas on the statue matter.  Only two citizens showed up, but they were Mary Austin and Frank Applegate.

Mary Austin has been described by publicists as an internationally known “feminist, mystic, southwestern naturalist and environmentalist.”  In Santa Fe she had been described as “God’s Mother-in Law.”

Frank Applegate was a sculptor, painter, and writer who had been a leader in establishing the Santa Fe art colony.  He and Mary Austin were triumphant veterans of a good many artistic battles.  With other artists and writers they were responsible for much that makes Santa Fe “The City Different.”

The two of them were kept cooling their heels in the De Vargas lobby for more than an hour as the luncheon went into overtime.

When they got into the meeting, Mary Austin announced that the statue was inappropriate for New Mexico, that New Mexico’s pioneer mothers were not those of the D.A.R.  They were Hispanic.  She added that she, herself, came from a long line of pioneer mothers and none of them looked like that statue.  She called it a caricature.

Frank Applegate in turn pronounced the Madonna a cheap copy of a work that was inartistic in the first place.  He said there had been too much supervision of the sculptor by the D. A. R. and repeated the rumor that Mrs. Moss’ own child was one of the models.  Then he pointed out that Santa Fe citizens would be asked to raise some $1,500 for moving and installing the statue.  He offered to donate $10 to a fund for keeping the thing out of town.

Mrs. Moss was understandably infuriated.  She told Applegate to apologize or leave the room.  He left the room.  Mary Austin left with him.

The committee went into executive session and voted 5 to 2 to send the statue to Albuquerque.

Subsequent issues of the New Mexican published letters from Applegate and Austin, from the Chamber of Commerce, and from a good many other people, plus an editorial entitled “That Statue.”  The controversy slowly died down.

A year later the society page of the Albuquerque Journal carried an account of a luncheon the local D. A. R. was having for speakers taking part in the dedication of the Madonna of the Trail statue.  Next day’s Journal carried a front page spread about the dedication ceremonies complete with a two-column cut of the sculptor working on the original with a distinguished-looking lady observing him.  Among the honored guests were Mrs. Moss, Judge Truman, and Mayor Clyde Tingley, members of the civic clubs, boy scouts, and “sponsoring companies.”  The D. A. R. state president read a poem honoring those who:

Crossed the prairie as of old

The pilgrims crossed the sea

To make the west, as they the east

The homestead of the free. . . .

Everybody sang “O Fair New Mexico,” and the ceremony concluded with “the placing of the names of the donors to the monument fund in a memorial box in the base, for future generations to read.”


Thanks to the late Earl Kubicek, we have clippings from the Albuquerque Journal fifty years later.  Again there is a large photo of the Madonna statue and in the background is a gathering of dignitaries.  The caption reads, “Spectators Gather for 50th Anniversary of the Madonna of the Trail.  The Time Capsule Hidden in the Statue Couldn’t be Found in Time.”  The story continues, “The first bad sign came last week when drilling revealed the stone behind the plaque was eight inches thick . . . with Mayor David Rusk, husbands of D. A. R. and perhaps a dozen guests circling the base tapping it with their rocks . . . . They found a hollow sounding spot . . . but no capsule.  The D. A. R. president says if they find it they will put in a new one with a copy of the program, a 15-cent stamp (because it’s such a horrible postage compared to 50 years ago) and several bicentennial coins.  “But we’re not going to seal the instructions.  They’re going in the file.” 

A week later, the Journal published a photo of the senior radiographer at Sandia Laboratories X-raying the base of the Madonna--still no memory box.

That seems to be the last story so far about the Madonna of the Trail.

If on some Elysian Field the spirits of Mary Austin and Frank Applegate meet they must be exchanging knowing thought waves.

[La Crónica de Nuevo México 27 (1988) 2.  Published by the Historical Society of New Mexico and reproduced with their permission.]