Chimney rock: Model of well-known sculpture given to Nebraska visitor center

Two sculptures by noted LDS sculptor Avard T. Fairbanks - one commemorating the Mormon pioneer tragedy at Winter Quarters and the other pertaining to the Oregon Trail - grace the new Chimney Rock National Historic Site visitor center that was dedicated Sept. 9. The sculptures are gifts from the family of the sculptor.

"Tragedy at Winter Quarters," a heroic-size bronze monument depicting a young couple standing over a shallow, frozen grave in which they have placed their infant child, has stood in the Mormon Pioneer Cemetery at Winter Quarters (Omaha), Neb., since 1936. A 3-foot-high "working" model cast in bronze of the monument was presented to the Nebraska State Historical Society at the visitor center dedication.The Old Oregon Trail sculpture is a depiction of pioneers in an ox-drawn wagon struggling over a rocky passage. It is a 10-inch model of a design chosen for the Oregon Territory Centennial U.S. postage stamp. Sculpted in bronze, the design is on the Oregon Trail in Baker and Seaside, Ore.

Making the presentation was the sculptor's son, David N. F. Fairbanks, and the son's wife, Sylvia West Fairbanks. (Avard T. Fairbanks died in 1987.)

Receiving the donated work were Lawrence J. Sommer, society director, and Nebraska Gov. E. Benjamin Nelson.

Richard E. Turley Jr., managing director of the Church Historical Department, represented the Church at the dedication.

Chimney Rock is perhaps the most distinctive land formation along the Mormon Pioneer and Oregon/California trails in western Nebraska. It was mentioned in many pioneer journals. Elder Orson Pratt of the Council of the Twelve used Chimney Rock as a measuring landmark. (See B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church, 3:179.)

Avard T. Fairbanks, born in Provo, Utah, in 1897, was the son of John B. Fairbanks, early Utah artist-painter, and the grandson of John Boylston Fairbanks, a Mormon pioneer who crossed the plains from Nebraska to Utah in 1847.

Avard's artistic talents were evident in his boyhood, and in his early teens he was exhibiting his works in New York's Metropolitan Museum and in salons in Paris, France.

He earned degrees at Yale University (bachelor of arts), University of Washington (master of arts), and University of Michigan (doctorate in anatomy). He held faculty positions at the universities of Oregon, Washington and Michigan, and finally as the founding dean of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Utah.

He also received the prestigious Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship for Artists to study with European masters. He studied three years in Florence, Italy.

During his years as head of the sculpture department at the University of Michigan in the late 1930s and early 1940s, he served as president of the Ann Arbor Branch of the Church.

His sculptures honoring great characters and events number over 100 and are found throughout the United States, Italy and Greece. Works well known to Church members include Angel Moroni statues on the Washington D.C., Jordan River, Seattle and Sao Paulo temples.

His earliest works for the Church were monuments on the Hawaii Temple grounds of Lehi blessing Nephi and of Hawaiian motherhood. He also sculpted friezes (relief panels) around the top of the temple, telling the histories of the four standard works.

His works on Temple Square in Salt Lake City are the Relief Society Centennial Memorial and the monument to the Restoration of the priesthood.

"Avard Fairbanks' most moving and sensitive pioneer memorial," his son David told the Church News, "is the monument at Winter Quarters. It was there that the impoverished band of Mormon Pioneers spent the first winter of their westward trek. There, they buried over 100 of their loved ones. Three of the great-grandparents of Avard Fairbanks are buried there, as was the namesake infant son of his great-grandfather."

The Winter Quarters memorial was first created for the Mormon Pavilion at the Chicago Worlds Fair in 1934 and the life-sized plaster model from there now is found in the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City. Two years later the heroic-sized bronze monument was placed in Pioneer Cemetery in Omaha. Photographs of the monument are found in numerous Church publications.

"This monument was erected by the Church to memorialize the Mormon Pioneers who laid to rest over 6,000 of their loved ones on the prairie," David Fairbanks said. "But in a broader sense, it honors all of these courageous pioneers who left buried their children, their wives, their husbands and their friends along the Oregon and California trails as well."

The new Chimney Rock Visitor Center contains 5,000 square feet of space mostly devoted to telling the story of the rock and its significance in Western history. Interpretive exhibits explain how the rock was formed, how it has been described in words and pictures, how much of it has eroded and how long it will last. Artifacts drawn from the museum, photograph and library collections of the historical society relate to the trail years of 1841-66. Also displayed are dozens of artistic renderings of Chimney Rock, many secured from libraries and museums across the United States. A new video, commissioned for the center's theater, presents the story of Chimney Rock.

Subscribe for free and get daily or weekly updates straight to your inbox
The three things you need to know everyday
Highlights from the last week to keep you informed