DISREGARDING all the preliminary work, including the transfer of the design to the mountain and the placing of the staging and scaffolding, actual cutting of the rock went on for sixteen months, from October, 1923, to February, 1925 In that time about sixty per cent of the rough load of the group was removed, the head of Lee was finished, and Jackson's head made ready to be finished. But this work, gigantic as it seems when measured by the thousands of tons of rock removed, was only a tiny fraction of the labor. In 1925, Borglum had been at work, not for sixteen months only, but for nine years, and a great deal of his hardest and most difficult labor had had nothing to do with the removal of stone, and was completed before he was under contract.
In 1916, when he first undertook the project, he had the enthusiasm of the Daughters of the Confederacy to back his own enthusiasm, and nothing else. As one looks back upon it, it seems as fantastic and hopeless an enterprise as ever was undertaken by the Knight of the Mancha. Gutzon Borglum accepted a formal commission to execute a work of art whose total cost was certain to run into millions, and the funds turned over to him to pay for the work consisted of two thousand dollars. It is small wonder that his colleagues considered him moonstruck and that hardheaded, sensible business men in the South resolutely refused to be entangled with a scheme so preposterous.
But in one respect, the situation was much to Borglum's liking. Having no funds, the Daughters of the Confederacy set upon him no limit. If they had had in hand, say, two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, they might have insisted that he keep the cost of the memorial within that amount. As it was, they simply accepted his idea, presented to them in a pencil sketch, gave him their two thousand dollars and told him to go as far as he liked.
In view of later happenings, it is important to record here that at the time Borglum was commissioned, no human being, least of all the sculptor himself, knew exactly what the completed sculpture would look like. He had a very clear conception of the effect he intended to achieve, but only the haziest notion of how he was to achieve that effect. On their part, the Daughters of the Confederacy had investigated his record and were satisfied that he was a sculptor of such rank as the work required, and they had heard him explain his idea and were satisfied that his conception of the meaning of the memorial was admirable. Every patron of art knows that if an artist has, first, sufficient technical ability, and second, an adequate conception of the subject, the part of wisdom is to keep hands off and permit him to work out his creation in his own way. This the Daughters of the Confederacy did, and years passed before they saw so much as a clay model of the central group of the design.
In the seven years after 1915, only two business men risked their property in the scheme. One of these was Samuel H. Venable, who owned the cliff on which it was proposed to carve the central group. He transferred free of charge a thousand feet of his property, but in the deed he inserted a skeptical proviso to the effect that if Mr. Borglum failed to carry out his scheme the property should revert to the Venable family. The other was a North Carolina tobacco magnate named Cobb, who gave Borglum his personal check for five thousand dollars to be applied to the work.
But when was a true artist ever restrained from action by such a detail as having in hand seven thousand dollars with which to execute a project certain to cost millions? Borglum had money. His fame as a sculptor had already been so well established that he had more commissions than he could fill. Everything that he made he was selling at high prices, and he and his family had always lived simply, so he had cash to spare. When he first put Tucker to work, he gave him money out of his own pocket, and as the stairs crept down the cliff, he supplied more and more. How much he put into the project, first and last, he does not know, for he kept no exact records. In 1923, he discovered among his papers, a bundle of receipted bills, representing a small part of his expenditures. Their total was thirty-eight thousand, five hundred dollars and this amount the Monumental Association has partly refunded. Since then he has traced other accounts to a total of about ninety thousand dollars. Much of this was spent for machinery, cables, lumber and pay-rolls. A good deal went for traveling and living expenses while he was on the business of the memorial.
But the money he put into the project, Borglum does not consider by any means the important part of his contribution. The money, after all, was only one means to the end for which he strove with every resource that he could command, namely, the awakening of interest in the memorial, first in the South and then in the nation outside of the South. His ambition was never limited to carving certain figures on a mountain. His ambition was to interpret in sculpture the pride of a people in the heroic spirit of their fathers. He felt that if some millionaire were to put into his hands enough money to complete the project, half its value would be lost, because it would then be, on the financial side, the work of an individual, whereas he desired to make it the expression of a people.
With this in mind, he traveled from end to end of the United States, talking about the memorial to every man and woman who would listen, no matter how reluctantly. He addressed gatherings, he wrote articles for newspapers and magazines, he cornered individuals. He risked becoming as monumental a bore as the old retired German officer who, about 1913, was talking every staff officer deaf, dumb and blind with his theories of the strategical importance of the Masurian lakes. They were avoiding von Hindenburg as they avoided the pestilence in those days. But the battle of Tannenburg was only a year away.
Borglum roused immense ridicule, some distrust and a little resentment. Who was this fellow, southerners asked, that he should assume to say how tribute should be paid to southern heroes ? They did not fathom Borglum's attitude. He does not belong to the North nor to the South. He belongs to the West, to a state that was not even in existence as a state when the North and the South collided and their mutual hatred bathed them both in blood. Neither he nor his forefathers had had any part in the fratricidal strife, therefore no man, North or South, could regard his figures as the work of a hereditary foe. He was not instructing the South in its duty. He was begging of the South the privilege of paying to its heroes the tribute of an impartial bystander.
Little by little this conception began to be understood, and interest was aroused. But a new war burst upon the country in 1917, and absorbed all men's attention. Tucker marched away with the engineers. Borglum was absorbed in war work, notably the air-plane investigation which he conducted under the orders of President Wilson. The stairs on Stone Mountain were the only reminder of the great dream of 1916. For five years they remained there, beaten by storms, warped by the sun, rotted by rains, and sometimes smashed and partly torn away by vandals. Tucker came back to Atlanta when the war was won, pulled off his captain's uniform and went to work as a contractor again. From time to time, he made trips of inspection to Stone Mountain. Mournful enough they must have been, as he watched the disintegration of the work that had cost him so much labor and scheming. At last the scaffolding became so rickety that its condition alarmed him. He realized that the structure was in such condition as to be nothing but a death-trap to any incautious wanderer, and he began to pick up the paper each morning more than half expecting to see the announcement that the accomplishment of his work of 1916 had been to send some prying fool, or worse, some group of thoughtless boys, hurtling into eternity. He went to Borglum with a flat demand: those steps must either be put in good condition or they must be destroyed.
But Borglum had not been idle in the days of reconstruction, nor had the Daughters of the Confederacy. The call to arms had roused more than the martial spirit of the South. It had sharpened anew its appreciation of valor. It had reawakened old memories of martial glory. It had strengthened the self-confidence of the section, and put it in the mood to attempt great things. It was in an altogether different temper that the South now heard the plans for the great memorial. The Daughters were moving heaven and earth to rouse the South. Borglum was wandering up and down the country pouring his impassioned plea into whatever ears would receive it, and finding many more willing to receive it. The city of Atlanta, in particular, began to gain some notion of what the existence of the memorial would mean to her. Civic and industrial leaders, hard-headed, sensible business men realized that this project was not as crazy as it had seemed.
A new organization was projected, whether by Borglum or by the Daughters of the Confederacy seems unimportant, since both assented eagerly. It was resolved to organize and incorporate the Stone Mountain Monumental Association, and to put upon its directorate professional, industrial and commercial leaders of the city. This new organization was effected and complete control of the project turned over to it. The new board of control gradually set in motion a number of intelligent money-raising schemes and made a contract with the sculptor. It was an exceedingly businesslike document and two of its provisions are worthy of particular attention. One of them called for completion of the central group within a period of three years from date of 1923, at a price of two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. The other called for the construction and delivery to the Association of a perfect model of the whole memorial. This latter proviso was obviously inserted to cover such contingencies as the sculptor's death or total and permanent disability, since it called for a perfect model of the entire memorial, not merely the central group.
Things had taken this turn almost at the moment when Tucker came with his demand that the steps on the mountain be either repaired or destroyed. It was with immense elation that Borglum was able to tell him to go to work and repair them, and also to summon his forces again to renew the attack on the mountain.