SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Contractors scurried on the form of Mount Rushmore drilling and jackhammering to construct the famous faces and heads of four presidents in a 1939 family vacation film in the archives of the South Dakota State Historical Society.
The film was recorded by Albert “Ollie” Fretheim, who lived in Minnesota.
Back in 1939, visitors to Mount Rushmore could get an up-close look at the monument construction. Tourists made their way up the mountain on steps or by taking a chair lift, much like those at ski resorts. Fretheim said in a note pictured in his film that he took the stairs to the top.
Kevin Larsen, the communications director for the state historical society, said Fretheim filmed the scenes on a family vacation.
“It’s fascinating because of the sheer technology available in 1939 that he was able to do that,” Larsen said. The overall quality is impressive as it shows details, right down to those on George Washington’s face, he said.
Sunday marks the anniversary of when Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum and his son Lincoln first visited the Black Hills in 1924, according to the National Park Service. But they didn’t find Mount Rushmore until a second trip in 1925. In 1927, Borglum was commissioned by the state of South Dakota to turn Mount Rushmore into a “colossal, monument,” according to Britannica online.
Controversy surrounded the monument when construction started in 1927, according to the NPS.
The mountain and the land around were considered sacred to the Lakota indigenous people.
The Lakota called this granite formation Tunkasila Sakpe Paha, or Six Grandfathers Mountain.
Others, mostly whites, called it Mount Rushmore, which was attributed to Charles E. Rushmore, a New York lawyer who visited the area in 1880s.
While some viewed the carving of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt as a celebration of American values, others saw it as a desecration of sacred indigenous land.
The controversy continues today with groups advocating for Mount Rushmore to be returned to tribes and others advocating for preservation.
Where did the money come from?
While the state wanted the monument, most of the needed money came from federal funds, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
In 1929, the federal government agreed to fund half the estimated cost, or $250,000, which would match private donations.
During the 14 years of memorial construction, funding was a constant issue. The project cost nearly $1 million and most of that was federal money.
Geology Fieldnotes from the U.S. Department of Interior said federal money accounted for $836,000 of the $990,000 spent on the memorial between 1927 and 1941.
The project’s plan was more ambitious than the completion seen today. The plan called for the presidents to be depicted from the waist up. The project ran out of money in 1941 and was declared finished.
400 feet, 400 men
The faces were carved on the 400-foot high and 500-foot wide east-facing wall of the mountain. The faces are each about 60-feet high.
An estimated 400 total men worked on the monument. About 30 worked at any given time. The men used dynamite, jackhammers and hand tools to blast, chisel and carve.
About 90% of the carving was done with dynamite and 450,000 tons of rock were removed.
Drillers that worked on the mountain moved up and down on bosun chairs. Workers in a winch house at the bottom of the mountain cranked winches to raise and lower the drillers.
The first face of Washington was completed in 1930. The head was dedicated on July 4.
Jefferson was dedicated in 1936. Lincoln was dedicated on Sept. 17, 1937. Theodore Roosevelt was dedicated in 1939.
Built for tourism
Doane Robinson, a historian, wanted a sculpture in the Black Hills to attract tourists.
The idea was successful.
The monument drew 393,000 in 1941, according to the NPS. Visitation grew to 1 million in 1959. It hit 2 million in 1971, the 30th anniversary of completion. Visitation would top 2 million three times in the 1990s.
Visitation would reach 2 million four times in the 2000s. It would hit 2 million every year from 2010 until 2022 except in 2019 when it hit 1.9 million.
The visitation numbers posted by the NPS are from 1941 and on. That does not include the visitors like Fretheim who came during construction.
Fretheim’s full film
The South Dakota State Historical Society has Fretheim’s full film.
The full film is about 15 minutes.
Fretheim recorded many of the attractions that still draw tourists to South Dakota today.
“These attractions live on in many ways for generations,” Larsen said.
Larsen said major topics in the vacation movie include Dinosaur Park in Rapid City, the Days of ’76 events at Deadwood and footage of Native Americans. The film includes other stops at various tourist destinations. Identified individuals of note include Dewey Beard, Potato Creek Johnny and Robert Wadlow, noted as the tallest person in recorded history.