Historians Celebrate Madonna’s Facelift

WHEELING – A grand old lady of Wheeling has received a facelift, and civic leaders and historians are celebrating the restoration of this iconic figure – the Madonna of the Trail statue.

The Daughters of the American Revolution’s Wheeling chapter, which launched the restorative project, conducted a ceremony to rededicate the famous statue Tuesday, July 16. The work, done with nearly $30,000 in grants, entailed cleaning the statue’s stone surface, replacing broken pieces and repairing cracks. The Madonna of the Trail faces National Road on Wheeling Park property.

Wheeling’s Madonna of the Trail – one of 12 identical statues located along the old National Road from Maryland to California – has stood in this location for 85 years. The local monument – the second in the nation – was dedicated on July 7, 1928, with a crowd of 5,000 people attending the ceremony, according to a newspaper account of the day.

The statues, designed by German immigrant August Leimbach, pay tribute to the pioneer women who, braving unknown dangers, traveled across the frontier and through the wilderness to expand the young nation. The statues depict a woman walking and carrying a baby, with a young boy clutching her skirts.

Jeremy Morris, executive director of the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp., which assisted the DAR with the restoration, called the Madonna “one of the most important icons in Wheeling along the National Road.”

“It’s not only a West Virginia icon; it’s a national icon.” Morris noted that the stone figure symbolizes “the struggle forward that women made in pushing west.”

Echoing those remarks, Greg Smith, a member of the Wheeling Historic Landmarks Commission, commented that the monument is “a great tribute to the women of our past” and “a great icon of Wheeling.”

Tim McCormick, president of the Ohio County Commission, observed that after the restoration, “This statue seems to be standing a bit taller; the baby is sleeping sounder and the boy is holding on a bit tighter.”

McCormick suggested that the restored statue was saying “thank you” to DAR members and others involved in the project “for having the courage, the sacrifice and the patience to put me back where I belong.”

Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie expressed gratitude to DAR members for their dedication to preserving the historic statue and “not forgetting this grand old lady on National Road.” Saying that it is “our responsibility to be keepers of the past,” the mayor said the statue stands as “an indication of our uniqueness and greatness as a city.”

Douglas Dalby, president and chief executive officer of the Wheeling Park Commission, noted that Otto Schenk, then-chairman of the commission, accepted “this wonderful monument” when it was dedicated in 1928. Dalby said minutes of the park commission’s Feb. 10, 1928 meeting stated that park commissioners signed an agreement with the National Old Trails Association and authorized payment of $500 required for placement of one of the 12 monuments.

Minutes of a Feb. 27, 1928 meeting indicated that park commissioners considered the wording of two inscriptions to be carved on the monument’s sides. George W. Lutz suggested a contest for Ohio County high school students with $15 in gold as prizes for the two best inscriptions; Lutz agreed to donate the $30 in gold.

“I hate to say it, but the story ends there,” Dalby said. Subsequent minutes don’t indicate whether prizes were awarded or who won the contest. DAR officials were unaware of this aspect of the statute’s history.

Dr. Jeanne Finstein, vice regent of the Wheeling DAR chapter, read a brief history of the monument, adapted from remarks given by DAR member Marie Graybill in 2003. Wheeling’s Madonna is 10 feet tall and weighs 5 tons. The base is 6 feet tall and weighs 12 tons. The foundation is 3 feet underground and 2 feet above.

“This noble lady is garbed for an arduous journey – bonneted, booted and wearing durable clothes,” Finstein said. “As we look at her face we see no timidity, no doubt and no fear. We see in her stance a pride of purpose, feet firmly planted forward, head erect. She is alert and – with rifle in hand – ready to defend what she holds most dear.”

Finstein commented, “Our Madonna exemplifies resolve, courage and faith. We honor these attributes of the pioneer mother. However, such virtues know no gender. They are also found in men – then and now.”

Suggesting that the pioneer woman might have repeated Ruth’s words from the Old Testament, “Whither thou goest, I will go,” Finstein concluded, “That message of courage and faith is still valid for all of us today as we celebrate the rededication of this monument.”

Debi McClelland Smith, a Wheeling DAR member and state DAR historic preservation chairman, said that after noticing cracks, moss growth and missing corners on the monument, she began a lengthy process of applying for grants to restore the Madonna. The chapter received $10,000 from the national DAR president general’s special projects grant program, a National Scenic Byway grant of $17,828 and a $1,000 gift from the Elizabeth Stifel Kline Foundation. Looking at the restored figure, she added, “It was finally done and it was worth the wait.”

Barby Frankenberry, DAR state regent, said, “I am so proud looking at the magnificence of this statue.” She saluted the effort “to bring her (the Madonna) back to the glory she deserves.”

Frankenberry said she was “so proud to be a West Virginian and to have one of these (statues) in our state and to honor these women.”