Remembering Chief Blackhawk

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-110857219324373.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘The Lorado Taft statue of a Native American near Oregon looks out over the Rock River Valley and reminds us who first inhabited this land.’);

To my amazement, many of my friends in the Rockford area, both old-timers and relatively newcomers, have never visited the outstanding statue of a noble Native American standing on a high cliff overlooking the Rock River near Oregon in Ogle County. I have been there many times in all seasons of the year and always have been impressed with the view of the valley below and the general aura surrounding the almost 50-foot statue. If one is of a visionary nature, he is apt to have a spiritual experience as he contemplates what the statue represents.

The imposing structure is in Lowden State Park (just off Illinois Highway 64), which was the home of The Eagle’s Nest Association from 1898 to 1942. The site served as a summer retreat for many artists, intellectuals, and artisans from Chicago who formed the association. The location is presently used by Northern Illinois University as a field campus dedicated to outdoor education. In 1951, Gov. Adlai Stevenson turned over 66 acres of the state park to the university, including the original 15 acres formerly utilized by The Eagle’s Nest Association.

One of the original members of the Eagle’s Nest group was Lorado Taft, a sculptor who was born in 1860 in Elmwood, Ill. Taft attended the University of Illinois and went to France for six years, where he reportedly studied under the famous Bartholdi. Taft returned to Chicago, where he established himself as a brilliant artist. His talent was so valued that he was chosen to supervise all the sculpting on the buildings at 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, sometimes called the Columbian Exposition to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America. It was one of Taft’s passions to advance art, and he traveled extensively, spreading the gospel and aiding and encouraging students.

During the early years of his frequent sojourns to The Eagle’s Nest, he conceived the idea of an impressive statue to honor the Native Americans who occupied the Rock River Valley before the first white settlers arrived. He proposed his project in 1907, and construction was started in 1908, when funding became available. Taft designed the monument and supervised the work of the actual sculptor, his friend and colleague John Prasuhn. The casting was completed in December 1910, and was allowed to stand until the spring of 1911, when the mold was removed, and Taft and the visiting dignitaries held their breaths, hoping the statue would not crash down in a heap. Fortunately, it did not, and a narrow internal staircase was then constructed within the hollow structure. For years, visitors could ascend the staircase to the top for an even more spectacular view of the valley, but a steel frame and door were installed in 1946, and the public was excluded from the interior for reasons of safety.

The 14-foot X 14-foot pedestal is approximately 10 feet above the base. Reinforcing extends down 2 feet into solid rock. There are 238 cubic yards of concrete in the base, pedestal, and statue, and 2 tons of twisted steel in the reinforcing. Twenty tons of granite screenings were included to waterproof the surface veneer. Few changes have been made to the original, except some repairs to damage inflicted by lightning. This consisted of the resizing and shaping of the left toe to fit a new pedestal, and the aforementioned door barring entrance to the staircase inside.

Over the years, the statue has become known as the Blackhawk Statue, in honor of the intrepid, famous chief who was evicted by the government from his land in the valley. The so-called Blackhawk War resulted when the Chief rebelled against an order to move his people to a reservation. A battle was fought in this conflict at nearby Stillman Valley in which a young militiaman named Abraham Lincoln took part.

Lorado Taft probably had Chief Blackhawk in mind when he conceived the idea of the statue, but his intent was for us to remember all of those who lived here before us and not to honor any specific one of them.

Even if you have visited the statue before, it is a good idea to go again and reflect on the fact that this land once belonged to a noble race of people who respected it a lot more than we seem to today.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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