Blast by blast, year by year, an immense tribute emerges

The Baltimore Sun

If you take a right turn on the way out of Mount Rushmore National Memorial and head west on Route 244, the two-lane road will take you winding through a gorgeous Black Hills medley of pines, slopes and jutting boulders.

Eventually, you reach U.S. 16, and turn south toward the town of Custer, S.D. But before you get there, you'll see Custer's nemesis on your left.

Crazy Horse's face was completed in 1998. Despite sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski's death in 1982, the family's cause has grown into a $6 million-a-year tourist complex that employs 135 workers in peak summer months, using revenue and donations to bankroll work on the mountain. Along with Ziolkowski's widow, Ruth, seven of his 10 children work there.

For a $10 admission fee, you get to see the carving from about three-quarters of a mile away, prowl the growing Crazy Horse tourist complex and perhaps take home a blast fragment. For $4 more, you can advance by bus to the foot of the mountain. And for the $125 cost of membership in the memorial's Grass Roots Club, you can ride up near the top of the mountain, stroll the 227-foot-long plateau that will be the warrior's outstretched arm, and peer up at that resolute granite face from 20 feet under the nose. The best time to catch the sun on Crazy Horse's face is late afternoon.

If you time it right, you may be able to see (and hear) the work on the mountain, including blasts of dynamite twice a week.

"I just can't conceive the engineering that's going into this," said Tom Welsh, a tourist from Central Islip, N.Y., as he gazed up from the base of the mountain.

Ziolkowski, born in Boston in 1908 to Polish immigrant parents and orphaned at age 1, grew up in foster homes, excelled in art and through his 20s built a reputation in Connecticut. He went to South Dakota in 1939 to take a key job working for Gutzon Borglum - and within three months was jobless, having butted heads with the boss's son.

That same year, Ziolkowski won a sculpture prize at the World's Fair in New York and got a letter from Chief Henry Standing Bear in South Dakota. The chief was looking for somebody to carve Crazy Horse, the Sioux warrior who prevailed over Gen. George Armstrong Custer at Little Bighorn in 1876 and was killed a year later.

By 1948, the sculptor had served in World War II, moved back to South Dakota, split with his first wife, selected a site known as Thunderhead Mountain, acquired land, built a log cabin and started blasting. Pretty soon, instead of sculpting the top 100 feet as first planned, he was talking about carving the whole mountain. And building a university. And a hospital. "Never forget your dreams," he liked to say.

During the next 34 years, Ziolkowski blasted millions of tons of granite off the mountain, took Ruth Ross of Connecticut as his second wife and fathered 10 children with her. After his death, he was buried in a tomb at the foot of the mountain, and Ruth Ziolkowski took the reins of the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation.

Now, all around the 1,500-square-foot cabin where the family first set up residence - and where Ruth, 81, still lives - an 80-room, 40,000-square foot welcome center sprawls. Visitors will find a studio, a museum, a gift shop, a sit-down restaurant that operates in summer months, an Indian cultural center where artisans sell work and a fleet of buses running up and down the wide gravel road to Thunderhead Mountain. Since 2005, a laser show has played on summer nights.

The university and medical center haven't materialized, but the organization does grant scholarships to American Indian students, about $113,000 last year. Although some Lakota say they resent this use of their ancestral lands as much as they resent Mount Rushmore, author Ian Frazier notes in his book Great Plains that Crazy Horse "is the one place on the Plains where I saw lots of Indians smiling."

Most evenings at the Crazy Horse Laughing Waters Restaurant, you can find Ruth Ziolkowski. She answers the phone at the visitor center, signs thank-you notes for every donation and counts the cash in the till most nights.

"If you don't have any faith," she said, "if you don't have any imagination, if you don't have a dream - what are you doing here?"

There's no answer to the question of when Crazy Horse will be done. With just one foreman and four driller-blasters on the payroll to translate Ziolkowski's 1/34th scale model into the granite, it easily could be a decade or more. It depends on money, geology and luck.

"How much more inspiring can you get than a family-run tradition?" said Jeff Kale, who had come from Toledo, Ohio, with his wife, their two kids and some nieces and nephews. He had seen Rushmore, Kale said, but "this is more amazing."

It certainly makes for a good yarn.

But I won't choose between Borglum and Ziolkowski. These sculptors (both of whom died at age 74) disagreed about plenty, but in the end they stood as undeclared partners, having given us two unparalleled symbols of the cultures that collided on the Great Plains.

Christopher Reynolds writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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