Since the Mennonite Settler sculpture is included in our mural design, I thought it would be helpful to include this article, which, coincidentally, was published just a couple days after I had written about it in the entry titled 'Monumental Research.'
(from the NewtonKansan)
August 31, 2010
Then and Now: Newton’s statue in the park is stimulating art
By Keith Sprunger
Mennonite Settler Statue in Athletic Park came to Newton in 1942 as a
part of an early “Government Stimulus Program.” Last spring, when
Congress was debating the current economic stimulus program, a Lawrence
newspaper ran an article and photo about the New Deal stimulus programs
of the 1930s and 1940s. It pointed to our Athletic Park statue as an
example of government stimulus art from previous times. This gave Newton
a bit of fame in art circles for a day or two. Newton has stimulating
Economic stimulus programs usually aim at big enterprises, such as auto plants and banks.
as Roosevelt’s New Deal saw it, art also needed to be stimulated.
Artists also deserved to have work. The Work Projects Administration, or
WPA, through the New Deal years employed millions of workers on various
public projects. Art projects were included. In 1940, the Junior
Chamber of Commerce was looking for a project to boost Newton. WPA funds
were available. The Newtonians decided a Wheat Memorial statue in the
park would be nice. It would honor the Newton area as a center of wheat
The memorial would honor wheat in three ways. It was
to honor Bernhard Warkentin as the importer of wheat from Russia, the
Santa Fe Railroad for transporting the wheat and the Mennonite farmers
who grew the wheat. The WPA would pay the salary of the sculptor, but
the cost of limestone and other materials would have to be paid for
locally. No large gifts materialized, so the Junior Chamber members had
to go out looking for money dollar by dollar and bushel by bushel of
wheat. Two local beauty queens, Betty Dester and Hazel Phillips,
called the Wheathearts of America, helped considerably with fund
raising. They went around to farms by truck at harvest time asking for a
few scoops or bushel of wheat from the fields to help with the project.
The community rallied. The money came in.
The statue was not
completed until 1942. The sculptor was Max Nixon, a native of Haverhill
in Butler County and unemployed at the time. The WPA approved him. He
produced a stylized, limestone Mennonite wheat farmer mounted on a
reddish cement shaft, and these were placed on a circular mosaic. The
entire monument stands 17 feet tall. Max Nixon, on his own initiative,
modified the emphasis of the monument. He featured the hard-working
wheat farmer, not the Santa Fe or Warkentin, the wealthy miller. I
never met Max Nixon, who later taught at the University of Oregon, but I
talked with him by telephone several times. I asked him about shifting
the emphasis to the Mennonite farmer, rather than the other suggested
themes. He said he grew up on a farm and knew the value and ardor of
hard farm work. “I wanted to give the farmers the idea that I really
appreciated them,” he said. “I wanted to honor the laboring people
rather than corporate wealth.” Nixon died in 2000.
The statue is
listed on the National Register of Historic Places.In 2000, it underwent
a major restoration, necessitated because of damage from weather and
vandalism. When the statue was unveiled at the dedication on Sept. 10,
1942, there was a gasp from the crowd. The social realism style was not
what was expected. Over time, it has gained acceptance and real
affection. It’s a great piece of stimulus art. Our current mural project
on Main Street is giving Newton another project of stimulus art. Thank
Keith Sprunger is a member of the Historic Preservation Commission.