Wednesday, September 1, 2010

"Mennonite Settler" newspaper article

Since the Mennonite Settler sculpture is included in our mural design, I thought it would be helpful to include this article, which, coincidentally, was published just a couple days after I had written about it in the entry titled 'Monumental Research.'

(from the NewtonKansan)
August 31, 2010

Then and Now: Newton’s statue in the park is stimulating art

By Keith Sprunger

The Mennonite Settler Statue in Athletic Park came to Newton in 1942 as a part of an early “Government Stimulus Program.” Last spring, when Congress was debating the current economic stimulus program, a Lawrence newspaper ran an article and photo about the New Deal stimulus programs of the 1930s and 1940s. It pointed to our Athletic Park statue as an example of government stimulus art from previous times. This gave Newton a bit of fame in art circles for a day or two. Newton has stimulating art.

Economic stimulus programs usually aim at big enterprises, such as auto plants and banks.
But, as Roosevelt’s New Deal saw it, art also needed to be stimulated. Artists also deserved to have work. The Work Projects Administration, or WPA, through the New Deal years employed millions of workers on various public projects. Art projects were included. In 1940, the Junior Chamber of Commerce was looking for a project to boost Newton. WPA funds were available. The Newtonians decided a Wheat Memorial statue in the park would be nice. It would honor the Newton area as a center of wheat production.

The memorial would honor wheat in three ways. It was to honor Bernhard Warkentin as the importer of wheat from Russia, the Santa Fe Railroad for transporting the wheat and the Mennonite farmers who grew the wheat. The WPA would pay the salary of the sculptor, but the cost of limestone and other materials would have to be paid for locally. No large gifts materialized, so the Junior Chamber members had to go out looking for money dollar by dollar and bushel by bushel of wheat. Two local beauty queens, Betty Dester and Hazel Phillips, called the Wheathearts of America, helped considerably with fund raising. They went around to farms by truck at harvest time asking for a few scoops or bushel of wheat from the fields to help with the project. The community rallied. The money came in.

The statue was not completed until 1942. The sculptor was Max Nixon, a native of Haverhill in Butler County and unemployed at the time. The WPA approved him. He produced a stylized, limestone Mennonite wheat farmer mounted on a reddish cement shaft, and these were placed on a circular mosaic. The entire monument stands 17 feet tall. Max Nixon, on his own initiative, modified the emphasis of the monument. He featured the hard-working wheat farmer, not the Santa Fe or Warkentin, the wealthy miller. I never met Max Nixon, who later taught at the University of Oregon, but I talked with him by telephone several times. I asked him about shifting the emphasis to the Mennonite farmer, rather than the other suggested themes. He said he grew up on a farm and knew the value and ardor of hard farm work. “I wanted to give the farmers the idea that I really appreciated them,” he said. “I wanted to honor the laboring people rather than corporate wealth.” Nixon died in 2000.

The statue is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.In 2000, it underwent a major restoration, necessitated because of damage from weather and vandalism. When the statue was unveiled at the dedication on Sept. 10, 1942, there was a gasp from the crowd. The social realism style was not what was expected. Over time, it has gained acceptance and real affection. It’s a great piece of stimulus art. Our current mural project on Main Street is giving Newton another project of stimulus art. Thank you.

Keith Sprunger is a member of the Historic Preservation Commission.

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