By 1924, when sculptor Gutzon Borglum was invited to the Black Hills of South Dakota to consider undertaking a mountain carving here, he had already invested nine years of his life in the Memorial to the Confederacy mountain carving at Stone Mountain, Georgia. After many years of preparatory work and delays in funding (plus a cessation during World War I) carving on the mountain was progressing smoothly and money was rolling in. But within a year the project would founder, and in retrospect Borglum appears to have been hedging his bets by casting about for future commissions.
The labyrinthine debacle at Stone Mountain contains enough high drama for a top-notch soap opera, where seemingly all of the principals possessed inflated opinions of self-worth, lots of funds were raised that somehow never trickled down to the actual project, and tempers flared in a latter-day north-south conflict. Borglum’s flamboyant style and impressive oratory had appealed to the group in the beginning, but over the years money problems and mounting differences of opinion wore down any semblance of accord. The entire project self-destructed in a conflagration of recriminations and legal proceedings which dragged on for years. Borglum destroyed his working models lest an inferior sculptor (and all sculptors were inferior in his mind) be hired to complete the job. After a failed attempt to resuscitate the project the executive board ordered his work wiped off the mountain, and there the project sat for almost fifty years.
According to historian, Rex Allen Smith, “It was failure at Stone Mountain that produced success at Rushmore”. But what if Stone Mountain had not led to Mount Rushmore? What if the sculptor and committee were able to set aside their differences and complete the project?
Borglum’s original concept – had he been allowed to pursue it – was to have the entire confederate army traipsing across the face of the mountain, headed up by Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson astride their faithful steeds. Since he was still learning the mountain carving skills he so masterfully implemented later on Mount Rushmore, this ambitious carving would most certainly have consumed what remained of his life.
What if Gutzon Borglum had stayed in Georgia to complete the carving at Stone Mountain?