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Arts & Life

South Dakota Commemorative Stone at the Washington Monument

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All images courtesy: South Dakota State Archives
Pierre stonecutter Thomas E. Jacobs with the South Dakota stone for the Washington Monument.

by Matthew Reitzel, Manuscript Archivist at the South Dakota State Archives

The Washington Monument

There were various efforts to memorialize George Washington while he lived. His death on December 14, 1799, heightened thoughts of a monument but no formative action was taken. The first tangible plans to create a memorial to Washington arose in 1833 with the creation of the Washington National Monument Society. The society would formally approve a memorial plan created by architect Robert Mills and Congress officially approved of the location of the monument site in 1848. The monument cornerstone was laid on July 4 of that same year.

Alabama sent the first native stone to be placed in the monument in 1850. Other states provided commemorative native stones, as well as various groups, clubs, and foreign countries. There are 195 commemorative stones in the Washington Monument. The monument rose to a height of 153 feet by 1854. Fundraising continued to be an issue for the society. By April 1861 and the start of the Civil War, the monument stood at 170 feet high.

With the anniversary of the nation’s centennial in 1876, Congress ultimately provided public funding to continue the monument project. Work was also required on the monument’s foundation as it was both sinking and titling. It was also agreed that the monument would be as near to a true obelisk as possible, being ten times as high as its base width. The Washington Monument’s base is 55 feet 1 ½ inches wide and its height would end up at 555 feet. Construction began again in 1880, with a height of 520 feet reached by November 1884, which for a time, made the Washington Monument the tallest structure in the world. It would be eclipsed by the Eifel Tower in 1889. In December 1884, the capstone and aluminum point were added. The final dedication was on Monday, February 23, 1885, the day after Washington’s 153rd birthday. In all, the Washington Monument took 37 years to complete.

The South Dakota Stone

Pierre stonecutter and monument maker Thomas E. Jacobs carved the two feet wide, four feet long by six-inch thick, mottled green granite slab quarried from local Pierre stone featuring the state seal of South Dakota. The South Dakota commemorative stone was dedicated at the Washington Monument on June 22, 1922.

Tom Jacobs, was born March 15, 1872 at Menominee, WI. His family homestead in Nebraska in the 1890s. Jacobs came to Pierre in 1900. He worked as a government surveyor, cowboy, and ranch hand. In 1912 he purchased the Pierre Monument Works on East Park Street in Pierre. He donated cornerstones for several Pierre churches and for St. Mary’s Hospital. His work included stonework for the State Capitol and walls around the grounds, he designed many grave markers at Riverside and Calvary cemeteries in Pierre including the Firemen’s Monument in Riverside Cemetery, created a memorial at Cheyenne Agency for Native Americans that died in World War I, and cut the stones used for the Governor’s Park/Grove gateposts. He lived in Pierre for over 50 years.

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Thomas E. Jacobs also transported the South Dakota stone to Washington D.C.

In 1921, the Seventeenth South Dakota State Legislature appropriated $300 for the addition of a South Dakota memorial stone to the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. Senator Theorus R. Stoner of Lead introduced the bill. The stone was to be, “a slab of native granite rock…two feet wide, four feet long and six inches thick and that the great seal of South Dakota to be engraved thereon…” Jacobs was commissioned to carve the stone in December 1921.

The commemorative stone was first unveiled in the House Chamber of the South Dakota State Capitol on the evening of Friday, March 24, 1922. Justice of the South Dakota Supreme Court Charles S. Whiting made remarks at the event. A good crowd of people attended, though many fought through a windstorm. Whiting gave initial credit for the commemorative stone idea to Deadwood resident Mrs. C. F. Demouth, chairman of the Thursday Club. Judge Whiting remarked that the stone was a “native granite rock” found near Pierre and he provided background and history of both George Washington and of the Washington Monument.

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Dignitaries at the dedication of the Washington Monument's South Dakota stone, June 22, 1922.

The official dedication of South Dakota’s memorial stone in the Washington Monument was held on June 22, 1922, with South Dakota Senator Thomas Sterling presiding. Over one hundred South Dakotans were present at the dedication. South Dakota Governor William H. McMaster was unable to attend the event, though a telegram was read with his remarks. Those who made statements included Senator Peter Norbeck, Congressmen Royal C. Johnson, Charles A. Christopherson and William Williamson. Peter Norbeck’s daughter Nellie unveiled the commemorative stone. Yankton Dakota Sioux, Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (Zitkala-Sa) read an original poem titled, “A Dacotah Ode to Washington.”

Excerpts of remarks made by various dignitaries:

Senator Thomas Sterling: “To those of us who once lived in the Territory of Dakota this happy commemoration is like another milestone among the pathway of our lives. This granite slab, with the facsimile of the great seal of the State of South Dakota thereon, brings to mind the many years of effort and struggle for the division of the great Territory and the admission of the south half of the sisterhood of States...”

Governor William H. McMaster (telegram): “I keenly regret that it is not possible for me to be in Washington and personally assist in the presentation of the South Dakota native granite tablet. The occasion is not only of interest but of real significance and the people of the State feel keenly appreciative of being able to thus have South Dakota so appropriately brought to the attention of those visiting the monument...”

Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, A Dacotah Ode to Washington: “A victory song we sing to the memory of Washington, who disdained kingship upon a lower realm and preferred to be a servant of the people, who by his life demonstrated only ‘Right makes might.’ Then over all his glorious achievements upheld our sacred emblem, the eagle, pointing to its meaning in all his noble acts. We venerate the memory of our great pale-face brother, Washington, the chiefest among guardians of spiritual fires—liberty and unity. Washington, thrice worthy of the decoration o the eagle plume, for he left the impress of its meaning upon the minds and hearts of all Americans…”

Senator Peter Norbeck: “With the rest of the South Dakota people here assembled, I am proud and I am pleased that our State is now represented in this monument by the contribution of a memorial stone. It is quite natural that South Dakota, which is a young State and has come into the Union of late years, should be one of the later to take part in doing honor to the memory of George Washington, but it was a foregone conclusion that we would not fail to do our part…We are happy in this privilege that we can join in doing something to show our appreciation of the ‘Father of his Country…’”

Congressman Royal C. Johnson: “The State of South Dakota is proud that it may join with its sister States in doing honor to the memory of George Washington, and as this tablet is dedicated to his memory, the people of the State renew their faith in the policies enunciated by our great President. No man may say how long this granite block or monument containing it may last, as no man may foretell the span of life of men or nations, but this we can foretell that as this monument of stone with strong foundation and good workmanship will exist for ages, the ideals of Washington will survive with civilization…”

Congressman Charles A. Christopherson: “The first time I wended my way down to this monument, walked up the stairway and saw the numerous tablets placed there by other States, I was struck by the thought that surely South Dakota should be represented. This absence of South Dakota has been commented on by many visitors from our State, and I am glad that form now on we will not be among the missing…”

Congressman William Williamson: So we, too, are joining the ranks of those who through the centuries have struggled to leave some reminder that they have lived. Happily, we are not placing this green granite slab that the names of those who are here may be remembered but that the countless pilgrims who through the years shall climb these stairs may be reminded of that glorious State whose representatives we are…”

The South Dakota memorial stone resides at the 300-foot level of the Washington Monument. To prevent vandalism, the stone was placed roughly eight feet above the floor.