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Mysterious monument for mountain man Hugh Glass has been moved to Nebraska

Family of poet/author John Neihardt hopes to retrieve ‘original manuscript’ in time capsule entombed inside concrete obelisk
Glass monument.jpg
Posted at 7:12 PM, Oct 23, 2023

BANCROFT, Neb. (Nebraska Examiner) — A 3,200-pound concrete “altar of courage,” holding a mysterious and possibly valuable literary manuscript, found a new home Monday in this northeast Nebraska farm town. 

With the help of a powerful forklift, the monument, built by poet/author John Neihardt and others to honor the heroic crawl of mountain man Hugh Glass after he was mauled by a bear and left for dead in 1823, was lowered into the sod at the John Neihardt State Historic Site here.

Neihardt wrote an epic poem about Glass’ ordeal called “The Song of Hugh Glass” and issued a challenge a century ago to the students from modern-day Wayne State College who helped build the concrete obelisk: Return in 100 years and open up a time capsule inside the monument and celebrate like the mountain men of old.

Author/poet John Neihardt, left, was so struck by the courage of mountain man Hugh Glass that he helped a fan club erect a monument to him a century ago. (Courtesy of Joseph Weixelman)

Neihardt, in 1923, wrote that he left an “original manuscript” in the metal time capsule, among other items, and buried it in the concrete. But no one’s quite sure what the original work might be.

Neihardt’s grandson, Robin, said it’s possible the manuscript might be the original, handwritten version of “The Song of Hugh Glass.”

“That would be something,” Robin Neihardt said, as family members worked to level the monument in its new home.

 “We don’t know what’s in there,” he added. “It might be an old sandwich and a burnt cigar.”

Tim Anderson, who wrote a recent biography of Neihardt, “Lonesome Dreamer,” said that it’s possible it could be the original poem.

Anderson said that Neihardt — the poet laureate in perpetuity of Nebraska — wrote his early works in longhand, though the poem was probably typed before it was sent, along with five other poems, to the publisher of “The Cycle of The West,” Neihardt’s decades-long effort to document the heroes of the western frontier and the displacement of the Plains Indians.

This lonely monument, erected by Neihardt and South Dakota rancher Otto Weinkauf 100 years ago, was removed last week from its location along Shadehill Reservoir in the northwest corner of South Dakota. (Courtesy U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)

The Hugh Glass monument, featuring a bronze plaque entitled an “altar of courage,” was erected near the site of the mauling, at the confluence of two branches of the Grand River near Lemmon, South Dakota. It was erected on the ranch of Otto Weinkauf, a German immigrant who lent his homemade cement mixer for the task. 

The epic crawl, which was depicted in the recent Hollywood movie, “The Revenant,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, ended with Glass surviving horrific wounds and forgiving the colleagues who left him behind to die.

Who owned the monument?

Fast forward to today. The process of opening the monument to retrieve the time capsule and manuscript was complicated by determining who really owned the block of concrete and who really controlled the task of opening it. The property on which it sat is part of a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reservoir and is located on land leased for the state park.

Ultimately, it was determined that the Neihardt family owned the monument, and the family determined that the old monument would make a nice addition to the historic site dedicated to their grandfather in Nebraska. The site includes the renovated shack where Neihardt wrote “The Song of Hugh Glass” and other early works, a museum/library, and a sculpture depicting Neihardt’s interviews of a Lakota medicine man that led to the book, “Black Elk Speaks.”

The Neihardt family, who hauled the monument from Lemmon to Bancroft on Sunday in a trailer, came armed with drills, chisels, a metal detector and a “borescope” — a rope-like, lighted camera that can be slid inside a drilled hole to see what’s inside.

Alexis Petri, a granddaughter of Neihardt, shows a “borescope” that her family hopes will help them find a time capsule buried in the monument. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

“I asked a historian and he said make sure you have a borescope,” said Alexis Petri, a great-granddaughter of Neihardt from Kansas City, Missouri.

Coralie Hughes, a granddaughter of Neihardt, said that officials in South Dakota had been very helpful and had already dug up the monument, laid it on a pallet and wrapped it in plastic film by the time she and her husband made the drive from Indiana.

“We’ve been so blessed,” Hughes said. “The weather was perfect up there and the weather is perfect here — it could be so bad in late October.”

A grandson, Robin Neihardt, a classical guitarist and home designer from Arizona, used to own a lumber yard in Herman, Nebraska, and has some experience with breaking into concrete. 

He pointed to lines on the concrete monument where it appeared that one pour of the home-mixed concrete ended, and the pour of another batch began.

“Come here and look,” he told a group of about a dozen onlookers Monday morning.

Robin Neihardt speculated that the time capsule, possibly inside a wooden cavity, was buried in the monument toward the bottom, after the first pour of concrete. He said he planned to remove the bronze plaque, use the metal detector to discern the location of the metal time capsule, and then drill a hole to see what the borescope might reveal.

‘Wait and see’

“We’re just going to wait and see,” Hughes said.

Seth Steinmeyer of Steiny’s Farm Service uses a forklift to move the Hugh Glass monument out of the trailer that hauled it from South Dakota. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

There’s some concern about the condition of what’s inside the time capsule.

Arlen Saunders, a grandson of Weinkauf, said it was flooded at its original site along the Grand River before being moved to make way for the reservoir. Then it was flooded again, according to  Joseph Wiexelman, a now-retired Wayne State history professor who led students up to the Lemmon site in June. 

Hughes said the family hopes to discern what’s inside later Monday and then repair the monument so it can be displayed at the Neihardt Center. Revealing what’s inside will remain a family secret until April 27, when the Neihardt Foundation holds its annual spring conference at Wayne State College.

Some kind of interpretive sign is planned to be erected in Lemmon to preserve the story of the century-old monument.

‘The Song of Hugh Glass’

... And when they lifted him, His moan went treble like a song of pain, He was so tortured. Surely it were vain To hope he might endure the toilsome ride Across the barrens. Better let him bide There on the grassy couch beside the spring. And, furthermore, it seemed a foolish thing That eighty men should wait the issue there; For dying is a game of solitaire And all men play the losing hand alone. -- Excerpt from "The Song of Hugh Glass"

Editor’s note: When he’s not writing for the Examiner, Paul Hammel is vice president of the Neihardt Foundation, which seeks to support the work of the Neihardt Center in Bancroft, a History Nebraska facility.

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nebraska Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Cate Folsom for questions: info@nebraskaexaminer.com. Follow Nebraska Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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