There's a woman standing on the side of the road in Springfield, Ohio. We've passed her and her children many times before without recognizing her. All day she stands there, all day she watches. She holds her children close to her, and glows a warm pink in the light of the setting sun. She is a mother. She is a wife. She is Madonna of the Trail.
There are twelve Madonnas positioned across the continental United States, all but two facing westward. Following the line of the National Old Trails Road (now mostly Rt. 40 and Rt. 66) from Bethesda, Maryland to Upland, California, these women were erected to honor the women of the frontier, the wives and daughters who were so strong and who so loved the men with whom they crossed the nation. The presence of these women established the expansion of the American territories as much as their adventurous husbands did, and for this they are recognized.
In 1911, the Daughters of the American Revolution formed the National Old Trails Road Committee, and were tasked with the establishment of the route as a National Memorial Highway. The dawn of World War One delayed the formal start of the project, but in 1924 Congress approved the plan to erect twelve statues along the Memorial Highway. German-American sculptor August Leimbach was drafted to design the statue. He describes his woman as such:
"When I came to America, I often saw these people of the pioneer type, strong and brave and always ready to protect themselves against any danger. Asked to make a sketch model for a monument of a woman of pioneer days, I was inspired by my own impression of these people I had met, and the Madonna of the Trail is the result."
And this woman is no dainty bread maker or house keeper. She's a sturdy woman, face turned to brave the west. She holds her baby with one arm while her son clutches her skirt. And in her free hand? A rifle. No, this is no ordinary woman. This is a woman who built homes. This is a woman who conquered lands.
The algonite stone used to build her heavily features Missouri granite, which causes her healthy pink coloring. I don't know if they did that on purpose, if they thought that casting her in this delicate, feminine color would soften the harshness of her dominating figure. The color doesn't soften her, not exactly. Instead, it lends her an air of motherly stoicism. Now she has a hint of personality, more than you might find if she were just another stark white memorial.
On July 4, 1928, at the dedication of the first statue, the one right here in Springfield, the leader of the National Old Trails Road Committee, then Judge (but soon to be President) Harry Truman said of these women: "They were just as brave or braver than their men because, in many cases, they went with sad hearts and trembling bodies. They went, however, and endured every hardship that befalls a pioneer." Within the next nine months, each of the twelve identical statues had been placed and dedicated, the final one resting at the start of the trail in Bethesda, Maryland. They've since become a source of local pride, with the community taking care to see that their women are not defaced, or too harshly weathered. They still stand today, that strong line across the country.
I still drive past our Madonna. I am glad now to know her name.