History of Mount Rushmore and Gutzon Borglum for Kids

Close your eyes and imagine you’re soaring over winding rivers and swaying wheat fields. You fly past golden plains and roaming buffalo, to a grove of tall pine trees and a massive stone mountain. But this isn’t just any mountain. If you look closely this mountain is special: it has four huge faces carved into the side of it! The faces are of former Presidents of the United States and you are looking at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota!

Mount Rushmore shows the faces of four U.S. presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.  These faces are colossal, gigantic!  They stare down into the valley like giants.   Their faces jut out of the mountain, staring off in different directions while their bodies appear as if they’re hidden behind the rock.  

But how did they get here?  It must have taken a very special person to carve something this big out of hard rock.  Have you ever tried to make model figures out of clay, or Legos, or a do-it-yourself kit?  It’s hard, right?  Things shift and slide and it’s hard to get them to look just right.  How did someone make all four of these huge faces look so good – and do it out of stone?  

We’ll talk about this next! 

Our story starts in the year 1920 with a sculptor and mountain carver named Gutzon Borglum.  Gutzon travels around the United States carving things out of stone for people.  He is married and has a daughter, Mary, and a son, Lincoln.

Lincoln loves to spend time with his father learning all sorts of things – like how to carve clay, how to chisel stone, and which tools to use for each.  

One day Gutzon meets with two men to discuss a mountain carving project.  They want Gutzon to carve a Wild West scene in a mountain as a tourist attraction . A tourist attraction is an interesting  place where people can go to take pictures and have fun.  Gutzon studies the mountain up close.  Uh-oh.  This does not look good.  The rocks are loose and chip away easily.  This mountain will not be a good mountain to carve.  But he has a better idea:  why not carve the faces of some of America’s best presidents into a mountain?  That would be even more patriotic – meaning lots of Americans would feel very proud of it.  Everyone agrees.

Gutzon travels around the valleys and mountains on horseback looking for the perfect mountain to carve.  The rock has to be just right.  It has to be very strong so that it will last for years in good and bad weather, including fierce storms and lightning strikes.  He certainly doesn’t want the faces sliding off the side of the mountain!  

Gutzon creates drawings; he decides to carve three president’s faces into the mountain:  Presidents Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson.  But when Gutzon visits the White House in Washington, DC, one day and talks to President Coolidge.  They agree to add President Roosevelt to the mountain as well!  Gutzon actually knows President Roosevelt and really likes him.  Wow, this is going to be a lot of work to add another face.  Can you imagine carving three gigantic faces into a mountain, much less four?!

Gutzon draws lots of sketches and makes miniature models in clay and stone.  Finally, the day arrives to start carving the mountain!  A big party is held in the valley on August 10, 1927.  President Coolidge comes to the party and makes a nice speech.  The Lakota Indians dance to the beat of drums, their feather headdresses swaying in the breeze.  Gutzon’s son, Lincoln, watches as his dad edges over the top of the mountain in a harness attached to ropes while holding a large drill.  His dad starts drilling into the rock and everyone cheers.   Lincoln is a little scared watching his father so high up on the mountain – but also proud.  

Gutzon hires lots of local workmen – carpenters, and lumbermen, and stone cutters – to help him.  They build over 500 wooden steps up the side of the mountain to carry supplies to the top.  They build houses and workshops in the valley, and a small village on top of the mountain.  The mountain-top village makes it quicker to get to the work site than climbing up all those steps from the valley.  

They also build a shed to store DYNAMITE!   Yes, they need lots of dynamite to blast away parts of the mountain.  Lincoln loves hearing those loud booms bounce back and forth across the valley like a big echo chamber.  Boom, boom, boom!  They are so loud they even rattle the windows in town!

Gutzon tells Lincoln he is going to carve a secret room INSIDE the mountain, behind the heads of the presidents, to store important papers…it will be a secret hiding place!  Lincoln can’t WAIT to sneak around that room.  Maybe he can peek out of Lincoln’s eye or Washington’s nose!  Working with his dad is an adventure everyday!  

The carving takes a very long time; years of carving and drilling and blowing up bits of the mountain.  But the faces start to show – like giants poking their faces out of a huge sand box!  As the years pass, Lincoln learns many skills by watching his dad and the workers.  They show him how to transfer measurements from tiny clay models to the side of the mountain.  He learns how to make the carved faces shiny and smooth.  He even learns how to use dynamite to blast away the rock to make an eye, a nose, or even a pair of glasses.  They dynamite the mountain two times a day – that’s a lot of explosions!  The poor folks in the valley – it must have driven them crazy!

But, one day they realize there’s a BIG problem!  After a year and a half of working on the mountain, Gutzon and Lincoln discover that the rock around Jefferson’s face is bad.  It is not a good section of the mountain.  What are they going to do?   They know they have to start all over again in another spot.  They are very sad. But they can’t leave the half-finished face peering out of the mountain, so using dynamize they blow it off!  All that work – gone!

The men continue to work through rain, and snow, and lightning strikes.  One day Lincoln even has to swing on ropes under one president’s 20-foot nose to avoid being hit by lightning.  Who knew a nose could be so handy?!

The winters are hard and long.Gutzon and Lincoln give a herd of buffalo to the members of the Lakota tribe so they have something to eat.  The Lakotas are so happy that they dance all night and make Gutzon and Lincoln blood brothers of the tribe!

The work continues until 1941 when Gutzon goes to the hospital for a minor operation.  There are complications and he passes away suddenly.  Lincoln is very sad.  He never got to say goodbye to his father and he thinks his father’s dreams will go  with him.  But instead, Lincoln is named head sculptor by the crew and becomes the boss of his father’s project at only 29 years old.

Lincoln knows that money and time are running out.  He decides he cannot make the secret room behind the presidents’ faces.  He’ll never get to complete his childhood dream of staring out a president’s eye – or nose! Oh well, sometimes you have to give up some things to get the job done! 

In the year  1941 on Halloween, the work is finally finished and the four presidents’ faces shine brightly from the side of the mountain.  Lincoln and the workmen are so happy and proud!  They place a wreath at the foot of Mount Rushmore to honor Gutzon, who never lived long enough to see his famous project come to completion.

After 14 years of hard work by Gutzon, his son, and 400 workmen, Mount Rushmore shines brightly across the Black Hills of South Dakota for all to see – and is still shining there today.

What do you think about this work by Gutzon and Lincoln?  Would you like to see Mount Rushmore some day?  I know I would. If you could carve a president’s face into the side of a mountain, who would you pick?   What are some lessons we can learn from Gutzon and Lincoln?  They taught me  that to do a job right, it takes a lot of hard work, time, and commitment.  And often things will go wrong and you may have to find a different way of doing things.  But if you are brave, study hard, and learn a skill, you can succeed in life and accomplish amazing things.  Have you thought about what you might like to do someday?  There are some pretty interesting jobs out there. The boy Lincoln’s was to swing off a president’s nose! Life becomes even more interesting when you dream big!