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The Pioneer Woman

If not E. W. Marland’s most enduring legacy, certainly his most visible is the 40-foot-high Pioneer Woman statue in Ponca City. In 1926, he launched a nationwide competition among America’s greatest sculptors to honor, in the words chiseled into the monument’s large stone base: “…the heroic character of the women who braved the dangers and endured the hardships incident to the daily life of the pioneer and homesteader in this country.”

The journey from idea to famous landmark encompassed nearly five years, a contest among twelve of America’s greatest sculptors, public votes around the country on the artists’ competing works, and a prize in excess of a million dollars in 21st-century currency. English-born sculptor Bryant Baker won with his 12,000-pound bronze depiction of the stalwart American frontierswoman, Bible under her arm, and a child who accompanied her on the rugged pilgrimage west.

“In trying to symbolize the pioneer woman of America I wanted to depict courage and faith,” Bryant said in identifying the statue’s book as the Bible. “The Bible was a vital factor in building up this country, and it often was the one indispensable book, recording the facts of the family life, of births, marriages and death, and often the only reading material available for mothers to teach their children to read and write in those days.”

The May 11, 1930 unveiling of the statue itself proved a historic event. Forty thousand people gathered to hear Will Rogers dedicate the work in person. President Herbert Hoover spoke over loud speakers from Washington on a nationwide radio broadcast, as did his Secretary of War, Oklahoma legend Patrick Hurley (OKLAHOMANS 2, Chapter 7).

“It was those women who carried the refinement, the moral character and spiritual force into the West,” said Hoover. “Not only they bore great burdens of daily toil and the rearing of families, but they were intent that their children should have a chance, that the doors of opportunity should be open to them. It was their insistence which made the schools and the churches.”

Rogers stole the show. He flew halfway across the United States “to help undress a woman!” he told the roaring crowd—and an offended Marland.

Meanwhile, few people knew of the event’s backstage drama. Marland, by now broke, owed Baker most of his sculptor’s fee. Baker had locked and sealed the statue, pending full payment. Appeals to wealthy men near and far for help had gone unheeded in the gathering Depression. These included Ponca business titan and Republican Lew Wentz, perhaps Marland’s single most bitter adversary.