Cora B. Johnson and Other Mount Rushmore Critics

Cora Babbitt Johnson was the editor of the Hot Springs Star newspaper in the 1920s and an outspoken voice of opposition against the construction of Mount Rushmore from the year it was proposed by state historian Doane Robinson in 1924.   Reading through Robinson’s papers archived at the South Dakota State Historical Society (and digitized) there were several opponents that he corresponded with to try to convince them of the value of the project.  Most were upset with the idea of interfering with nature, with spoiling a work of God, or with the commercial development of the Black Hills.

Cora Babbitt was born in about 1875 in Illinois.  In 1880, her family lived in Galva, Illinois.  In 1900, she lived in Omaha with her sister Hattie and worked as a music teacher.  Cora had studied piano for two years at the New England Conservatory of Music but eventually chose a “literary career” instead.  In 1905, she married A.T. Johnson (either Alex or Axel…).

In 1918, Johnson bought the Hot Springs Star and they moved to Hot Springs from St. Louis, Missouri.  A.T. Johnson published the Hot Springs Star and Cora worked as editor.  In 1920, she lived with her husband and a nephew, Howard Strickland, at a hotel on River Ave.  In that census, her husband was listed as editor and proprietor of a newspaper, and she was listed without an occupation.  At the 1921 meeting of the South Dakota Press Association, they won an honorable mention for page layout as publishers, and Cora won third place for best editorial.  For eight years in the 1920s, Cora was editor-in-chief for the Star and then went on to be a feature writer who was published in multiple papers, including the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, the Kansas City Star, the Denver Post, and the Omaha Bee.  In brief snippets I ran across online, she may have also published some poetry.  She was also a frequent speaker at clubs and other civic organizations.  She was a member of the Shakespeare and Civic clubs in Hot Springs, and represented them at the meeting of the Black Hills Federation of Women’s Clubs in April 1925.  In the 1930 census for Hot Springs, A.T. was listed as a newspaper printer and Cora was listed as a newspaper writer.  In 1939, she was listed as one of twenty-four of the most influential female publishers in South Dakota.

See a picture of Cora in the January 1928 issue of the Black Hills Engineer on page 27 (scanned page 39) at this link here.

They moved to California for A.T.’s health in the late 1920s, and although they had a residence in Hot Springs, they were also listed in San Diego living with their nephew Taylor Stricklin and working as newspaper printer/editor.  For a time, Cora did an afternoon radio program called “Seeing San Diego” for station KFSD.   A.T. Johnson died in San Diego in September 1935.  In the 1940 census for San Diego, California, Cora is listed with her nephew and niece Taylor and Esther Stricklin and her occupation is given as Deputy Recorder for San Diego County.  Family trees listed on suggest that she died in 1973 in Vancouver, Washington.

Doane Robinson was a poet and state historian.  Robinson first publically proposed the idea to carve monumental sculpture into landforms in the Black Hills at the January 1924 meeting of the Black and Yellow Trail Association in Huron.  The group sought to create a multi-state highway that would cross through the Black Hills of South Dakota and the Yellowstone park area.  Robinson’s original idea was to carve legendary figures of Western history, like Lewis and Clark, Sacajawea, General Custer, Buffalo Bill Cody, or Red Cloud, into the Needles rock formation.


Needles Highway, October 2015, photograph by author.

Robinson appreciated the scenic value of the Hills, but believed that sustained tourism would depend on the draw of “special interest” attractions scattered along a “carefully selected route.”  Good roads and attractions could bring the estimated 200 auto travelers in the Hills to thousands of tourists a year (and now millions).  He concluded one letter with this: “Scenery alone will not sell the Black Hills to the world” [Letter to J.B. Green of the Rapid City Commercial Club, March 7, 1924].  After working with Senator Peter Norbeck and eventually artist Gutzon Borglum, they settled on a sculpture of U.S. presidents and Borglum considered Harney Peak before choosing Mount Rushmore as the most suitable stage.  Robinson quickly became enamored with his own idea and the power of such a sculpture to draw tourists and capitalize on a natural state asset.  He passionately believed it would be a world wonder of artistic merit that would surpass the Colossus of Rhodes or the artistry of Michelangelo (both of which he actually used in letters).

Newspapers flew into action to report about the idea and the progress that proponents were making.  The Associated Press ran a report about Robinson’s speech to the Black and Yellow Trail Association.  The Argus Leader in Sioux Falls and the American in Aberdeen ran stories about the idea–the former in support, the latter in objection.  An editorial was published in the Deadwood Pioneer-Times (and republished in the Capitol Journal in Pierre) that apparently had a tone of bemused skepticism.  Robinson courted public opinion by responding to news publishers who ran critical editorials, coordinating press releases about Borglum’s initial survey trips to the Hills, speaking in front of many different organizations, and sending around prints of Borglum’s initial sketches.

The Hot Springs Star printed sharp criticism of the project in November 1924.  When Robinson read the editorial in the Star, he wrote to A.T. Johnson as the publisher.  Cora B. Johnson wrote back to Robinson assuring him that she was the author [Robinson papers, SD State Archives, Folder 149, scanned page 50, link here].  Although she agreed that it would be a tourist draw, she believed that the landscape was “awe-inspiring” and “cosmic” as it was and that any such “ornamentation” as proposed did not belong.  She, in fact, called it juvenile, comparing it to college students who tried “to plant their class emblem in a higher or more unexpected place than it has ever been carried before.”  She concluded her letter by saying that she was sorry they disagreed “so entirely” and implying that she would do whatever she could to stop the project.  The condescension in Robinson’s reply makes me mad–almost a hundred years later.  I’m not even going to reprint it, but it’s the scanned page 51 in Folder 149 in the link noted above.

She was not alone in her opposition.  At their 1925 meeting, the Federation of Women’s Clubs of the Black Hills protested and adopted an official position against the project because of its potential impact on scenic values (that was the meeting that Cora Johnson attended, see biographical notes above).  By looking at letters Robinson sent out, Johnson must have also printed criticism from Mrs. B.C. Yates of Lead and J.B. Townsley, a publisher of the Dakota Republican in Vermillion, in the Star.  In his subsequent letters to Robinson in December 1924, J.B. Townsley laid out his objection that the sculpture would be out of place “in the wilds of the Black Hills, where God’s statuary surpasses any possible conception of mere man.  Statuary among the needles or on Harney peak would be as incongruous and ridiculous as keeping a cow in the rotunda of the Capitol building at Pierre.”  He also objected to extensive tourism and recreational development that would try to “improve” nature and ruin his own isolated and rugged wilderness vacations at the rustic lodges built in the Hills.  Robinson’s reply to Townsley seems more measured and respectful than his letters to female critics… [Folder 149, scanned page 63].  Townsley’s Dakota Republican continued to print opposition to the project [Folder 150, link here, scanned page 97].

Gertrude S. Young, a faculty member in the Department of History and Political Science at South Dakota State College (now South Dakota State University) in Brookings, wrote Robinson letters of protest despite their professional acquaintance.  She wrote that the highway that had recently been built through the Needles was already a deplorable “scar” on their “exquisite and perfect beauty” and that any sculpture would “mutilate” them further [Robinson papers, SD State Archives, Folder 149, scanned page 31].  Mrs. Maude Gardner Hoover sent a handwritten letter to Robinson from Hoover in Butte County [Folder 149, scanned pages 71-73].  Her letter described the Black Hills as “deep, quiet, majestic, natural,” and valued by tourists especially for their lack of commercialization.  She thought that such a “puny work of man” would “desecrate” the artistic work of God.  Both Hoover and Townsley specifically mentioned dance pavilions and jazz bands, then common at resorts of the era, as examples of unsuitable tourism.  Robinson’s responses to both women were sharp (and very similar).  He presumed that they had not “thought the matter through” and said it was such a marvel of a project that no one could disagree with it if they really understood it.  To others, he used additional repeating counter-arguments to clear up what he presumed were cases of “misunderstanding.”  In various combinations, he professed his own love of nature and his unselfish motivations in his love of the state, said that he’d had an overall overwhelmingly positive response, described the incomprehension he heard from others that anyone would oppose the memorial, argued that God would work in the “sublime art” of Borglum’s sculpture, cited precedent of tourist “improvement” in the Hills in the construction of Sylvan Lake (in addition to vast mining and other industrial activities), and assured them that it would mean “gold” in tourist revenue for years to come.  Young, for one, sent a brief reply in turn that she was just not convinced.

There is a huge connection from the rhetoric of opponents and Robinson’s responses to established histories of tourism and the environment.  If you’re interested in more on tourism in the Black Hills: Suzanne Julin’s A Marvelous Hundred Square Miles.  For more on wilderness, tourism, and recreation: Paul Sutter’s Driven Wild.

After Congress and the state legislature passed authorizing legislation for the Mount Harney Memorial Association in charge of the project in 1925, there are not many other letters of opposition referenced in Robinson’s correspondence, but Cora B. Johnson had not stopped working against the project.   About that time, Borglum left his prior project at Stone Mountain in Georgia amid controversy.  Johnson had had correspondence from the publicity director of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association about their experience with Borglum and wrote to mayor of Newark, N.J. to ask for corroboration about his dealings with Borglum [scanned pages 161-163].  The Newark parks director replied to her that their experience had been “favorable,” and then he forwarded her letter to Borglum who sent it in turn to Robinson, keeping them informed of her efforts.  That was the latest mention of action by Cora Johnson that I have found in the searches I have done and the Johnsons moved to San Diego in the late 1920s.

Critics did not stop the project.  The memorial sculpture was built from 1927 until 1941, when Congress finally cut all funding.  It was a financially perilous undertaking and the resulting memorial is missing many of the components that had originally been planned.  Over the years, it has taken flack from environmentalists, from tribes for whom the Hills are sacred ground, and from locals now who avoid the over-developed kitsch awfulness that it has attracted, but it is now so entrenched as a phenomenon, as a symbol, and as a gimmicky advertising graphic that it is hard to imagine South Dakota without it.  It gets millions of visitors a year and has a visitor center like a mall (built in the 1990s to replace the 1960s center immortalized in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest).  I have only visited once, in 1997, with my Minnesota family on a summer trip.  Now as a South Dakota resident, it’s a tourist mecca that I prefer ‘visiting’ from the highways (which were themselves constructed for tourism and admittedly were controversial in their own right) and in the off-season.  Although, it does lend itself to great photographs…


Mount Rushmore National Memorial, October 2015, photograph by author.


Doane Robinson Collection, South Dakota State Archives, Folder 149 (1923-1925), Folder 150 (1926-1927).  The folders have been scanned (but not transcribed) and I’ve added links to the South Dakota Digital Archives on the Folder names.

Richard G. Hardoff, Indian Views of the Custer Fight: A Source Book (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004), 117.

Suzanne B. Julin, A Marvelous Hundred Square Miles: Black Hills Tourism, 1880-1941 (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2009), 90-93.

John Taliaferro, Great White Fathers: The Story of the Obsessive Quest to Create Mount Rushmore (New York: PublicAffairs, 2002), 206.

South Dakota: Fifty Years of Progress, 1889-1939 (Sioux Falls: S. D. Golden Anniversary Book Co., 1939), 29.

Lead Daily Call (SD), May 13, 1918 and September 11, 1935.

The American Printer (New York: March 20, 1921), 66.

The Daily Deadwood Pioneer-Times (SD), April 25, 1925.

Radio Doings (Los Angeles: Horwood Publishing Co., February 15 – August 9, 1930).

Broadcast Weekly (San Francisco, May 24, 1931).

The Black Hills Engineer (Rapid City: South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, January 1928), 27.

U.S. Census Bureau, Tenth Census of the United States, ED #109, Galva, Henry County, Illinois (June 3, 1880), 9.

U.S. Census Bureau, Twelfth Census of the United States, ED #81, Omaha City, Douglas County, Nebraska (June 6, 1900), 10.

U.S. Census Bureau, Thirteenth Census of the United States, ED #256, Saint Louis City, Missouri (April 22, 1910), 6A.

U.S. Census Bureau, Fourteenth Census of the United States, ED #3, Hot Springs, Fall River County, South Dakota (January 8, 1920), 5A.

U.S. Census Bureau, Fifteenth Census of the United States, ED #1, Hot Springs, Fall River County, South Dakota (April 19, 1930), 10A, and ED #37-72, San Diego, San Diego County, California (April 5, 1930), 5B.

U.S. Census Bureau, Sixteenth Census of the United States, ED #62-125, San Diego, San Diego County, California (April 5, 1940), 3A.


One thought on “Cora B. Johnson and Other Mount Rushmore Critics

  1. Factoid: Borglum asked for funds to add a Native American (Indian) to the 4 Presidents, but Congress rejected the proposal. Too bad, it would have fit in perfectly.

    And Cora didn’t understand perspective, probably because she was local: that one piece of granite is but a dot in the mountain range. If it ‘interfered with nature’, it didn’t interfere very much.

    My wife and I visited Mt. Rushmore two years ago, on a weekday. The number of visitors was astonishing! There was a constant flow of people in and out, taking pics, buying souvenirs (which were very inexpensive; only $5 for a good T-shirt, for example). The crowds were unexpectedly large and the parking lots were full.

    Many of the visitors were obviously foreign tourists. Both the local area and the state benefit immensely from the steady inflow of tourist dollars. I understand the author’s concern, but it’s a done deal now, and it more than pays for itself. It’s very clean and well maintained—and now it’s a part of South Dakota’s history. If I lived nearby, I’d appreciate it; it’s certainly no Disneyland. The folks in S.D. should be proud of their incredible monument.

    It’s really worth the trip if you’re near there. Take a detour to Deadwood, too—a really interesting town with lots of history, and it’s not far away.


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