Text and photos submitted by Terry L. Ommen
he history of Solon Borglum’s famous Pioneer statue is filled with celebration and sadness, and Tulare County played a part in much of it.
For years, it stood at the entrance to Mooney Grove Park, welcoming thousands of visitors. It was the first important piece of art in the historic park, and its arrival gave Tulare County, especially Visalia, an air of sophistication and culture. The huge statue arrived with fanfare in 1916 on a Southern Pacific Railroad flatcar and, 64 years later, it left, quietly reduced to a pile of rubble.
The Pioneer, officially known as “The American Pioneer — a Reverie,” was the work of Solon Hannibal Borglum. He was born in 1868 in Ogden, Utah, to parents who came to America from Denmark.
As a young man, Solon owned a ranch in Nebraska and, as a pastime, he sketched the men and animals around him. In 1890, his brother Gutzon, a talented artist who later became known for his work in creating the massive sculpture at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, saw Solon’s sketches and encouraged him to become an artist. Solon took his older brother’s advice, sold his ranch and, by 1893, he was working as a sidewalk artist in Los Angeles. It was there that Borglum received his first commission — a portrait. But his real artistic interest was in horses, focusing on their muscle structure and movements.
He created small art pieces, but was not satisfied with his work. The self-taught man decided that he needed formal training, so he enrolled at the Cincinnati Art School. While there, he was encouraged to study in Paris. He stayed in France for four years, excelled and earned considerable acclaim.
By the time he returned to America, he was considered an established artist. In 1904, he was invited to submit art for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis and, in 1915, he received a commission to create a sculpture honoring the western settler.
The Pioneer on display at the Panama Pacific International Exhibition
“The American Pioneer — A Reverie” was the result of his work, and the statue was placed at the entrance to the Court of Flowers at the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco — right next to James Earle Fraser’s “The End of the Trail.” Borglum’s interpretation depicted an “ancient hero” mounted on a “heavy horse” draped with a buffalo skin. The Don Quixote-like figure was holding an axe and a rifle. All together, some said it represented a “triumphant American frontiersman marching indomitably to the winning of the West.”
Borglum continued to create and inspire, and earned himself a place as one of the country’s best. In 1922, he died unexpectedly after undergoing an appendectomy.
At the end of the Pan Pacific Exposition in 1915, many of the statues on display were offered to organizations willing to pay the cost of crating and shipping. The Tulare County Forestry Board, a county government group responsible for the administration of county parks, applied for the Pioneer statue. Thomas Jacob, representing Visalia on the board, declared: “That is the one piece of statuary we want. If we cannot get that I would not care for any….” And the county was happy to pay the $150 cost in getting it.
On April 7, 1916, Jacob proudly announced that the Pioneer was awarded to Tulare County, adding that its new home would be Mooney Park. On May 2, the much-anticipated statue arrived at Visalia’s Southern Pacific Railroad depot barely recognizable in pieces on a railroad flatcar.
Sculptor Solon Borglum in about 1910.
Thomas Jacob, a strong advocate for the Pioneer, served on the Tulare County Forestry Board. Circa 1916
The segments, made of plaster over chicken wire, were unloaded and delivered to Mooney Grove. Now the job of reassembly began. In November 1916, the work was finally finished, taking longer than anticipated because several pieces had been damaged in transport.
For the next decades, the Pioneer stood at the entrance to Mooney Grove Park, welcoming visitors. Exposed to the elements, it survived rain, fog, extreme heat and sometimes freezing temperatures, not to mention occasional abuse from visitors. County workers painted, varnished, sealed and repaired it as best they could, all in an attempt to hold the statue together, a challenging job considering that the statue was originally designed for temporary use only.
In 1962, Borglum’s daughter, Monica Davies, visited Mooney Grove to see her father’s work and “The End of the Trail,” and commented on how pleased she was with their condition. She later wrote, “I feel that it is truly an outstanding thing that they have been so successfully cared for, proving that it can be done.”
But in 1978, the Tulare Advance-Register newspaper wasn’t nearly as pleased. It devoted a large section to the Pioneer and its declining condition. In the article, it was reported that Sherald Sluka, Tulare County general services director, had written a letter to the Board of Supervisors detailing the poor condition of the aging statue, concluding that it might not last through the winter. He added that restoring the statue would require up to $100,000. Clearly, the future looked grim for the old Pioneer.
On Sunday, May 25, 1980, the Mammoth Lakes earthquake hit and marked the end for the 64-year-old landmark statue. Tulare County felt the 6.2-magnitude jolt and even suffered some minor damage, but it proved to be devastating for the Pioneer. It is not clear whether it suffered catastrophic damage from the initial quake or from an aftershock, but by 7 Tuesday morning, May 27, the statue was a pile of rubble. It had collapsed into small pieces and a few large ones, but nothing could be salvaged.
When Sluka was asked about the value of the loss, he said no value had been placed on the statue, but added that it was either priceless or worthless, depending upon one’s point of view. Souvenir hunters gathered some pieces, but the bulk became Tulare County landfill.
The rubble of the Pioneer at the time of its collapse in 1980.
Postscript: In 1919, Tulare County, using the same application process, acquired “The End of the Trail” statue. It, too, was erected in Mooney Grove Park near the Pioneer. In 1968, the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City exchanged the original “The End of the Trail” for a bronze replica, which stands in Mooney Grove today.