Looking out over the poorly attended funeral, the minister from the First Baptist Church of Hiawatha, Kansas was dismayed. The recently deceased, John Milburn Davis was not a well loved man. He had very few, if any, living friends and no family. He even joked himself at one time that he well may have been ‘the most unpopular man in Kansas’. The pastor, being aware of the circumstances regarding his unpopularity, gently scolded his flock, reminding all in attendance that, “We all have our peculiarities.” Only 50 people showed up from a town of over 3000, most of whom were acquainted in one way or another with the deceased. Of those that did attend, Most did so out of sheer curiosity to see John laid to rest underneath the ‘marbled headache’ that had caused so much rancor and resentment that he had left behind.
John Milburn Davis moved to Kansas when he was 23 from Kentucky in 1878. He secured employment working on a farm for the Hart family a short distance from the small community of Hiawatha. There he met, fell in love with and wed the farmer’s daughter, Sarah. Her family was so strongly opposed to the marriage that they cut ties with both of them.
They lived a quiet, hard working life. For the first 35 years, they scrimped and saved, they made do and got by on their 260 acre farm and kept to themselves. Sarah inherited another 150 acres from her family and they farmed that as well. Although known to be ill-tempered and unsocial, John was strict with Sarah but never mean. She stayed at home while he worked, not even venturing into town to buy groceries, John would get those himself and bring them home. There was a neighbor that Sarah would visit and share conversation and tea with, but she always made sure that she was home well before John was expected. Many found John to be ‘touchy’ or ‘hard to get along with’, but there was never any account of cruelty within the marriage. The couple made no friends and they didn’t welcome any company in their home. They remained childless throughout their long marriage. They took care of each other, Sarah staying by John’s side when he lost his arm from an infection he contracted from a scythe cut and they were each others sole company.
When they were both in their sixties, the couple retired and moved into a Victorian bungalow in the small town of Hiawatha. By all accounts, John’s hard work hadmade them wealthy by local standards. Years passed and the couple, although still very private, together enjoyed a well deserved retirement.
In 1930, after over 50 years together, Sarah died of a stroke and bequeathed all of her earthly possessions to her husband. Her will stated that John should erect a ‘suitable monument’ for her at her grave site in a local cemetery. This is where the story takes a strange turn to either a story of love and longing or a tale of spite and revenge. The one person who knew for sure never really said.
Originally, John did purchase a modest headstone and had it placed at the grave in Mount Hope Cemetery at the edge of town, but somehow, that just wasn’t enough. He collaborated with friend and local monument dealer Horace England and they laid the plans for a most elaborate of memorials.
At first, England tried to dissuade John from erecting such an expensive monument. Hiawatha, much the same as the rest of the country, was in the grips of the Great Depression. Hard cash was in short supply and the town needed a hospital, a swimming pool, a high school and a number of other things. John Davis was erecting an outrageous monument to his dead wife when town’s people could use the much needed funds to help the community. There were hard feelings all around and John told England he would understand if he declined to continue, due to community outrage but that he would just contract someone else to do the work. England relented and construction began.
The original plans included a granite canopy, fashioned similar to a carport, over the graves of the couple. Emblazoned in the canopy itself was the name of Davis. Flanking the graves were white marble statues of the couple as they were on their 50th wedding anniversary. The statues were hand carved and imported from Carrera, Italy from photos John had provided. They stood facing their own graves and each other, but this, just wasn’t enough.
“It still looked too bare, so I go me another pair,” John said of the next set of statues – depicting the couple just 10 years after their marriage, but that still fell short of John’s vision. Whether inspired by his love for his wife or as some suggest, to spend his fortune to prevent Sarah’s family from inheriting any, John continued building onto the memorial.
The citizens of Hiawatha watched in anger as John poured money into the memorial; their requests for his help to underwrite community projects passed over. As people will do, they gossiped and sniped about the expenditure, some claiming that it was John’s guilty conscious for treating Sarah so poorly in life – a rumor often perpetuated but never substantiated.
The next set, placed at the head of the graves, showed the couple seated together on a bench. John, clean shaven owing to the fact his beard and face had been burned in a farm accident when he was buring off cornstalks. Space under the canopy was getting tight so John extended the memorial to include more. Next in the series show John, minus his arm (lost to the infectious scythe cut in 1908) and Sarah, seated in large chairs along one side of the canopy.
Then, whether a conscious choice to reflect his sadness at the loss of his wife or because importing costs and shortages soared with the start of WWII, the next pair were composed completely of granite. They show John seated, long of face, seated next to a simply vacant chair, reflecting the passing of Sarah.
To complete the masterpiece, John placed at the end of the graves, figures of himself and Sara (as an aged angel), on bended knee, praying over each others final resting place. John’s head is missing, the victim of vandals in the 1990s who claimed they tossed the head into a nearby reservoir. Just as all but the vacant chair set, this pair were made of white marble as well.
To prevent the statues from being damaged, John’s final addition was an enclosure of a granite wall with peach marble insets emblazoned with the initial D and granite vase ornaments. Carved into a corner vase of the granite is the simple message, “Kindly keep off the memorial”. To complete the memorial, John had exhausted his entire fortune, deeding over both of his farms and his house in the town to England, with the agreement that he could live in the house until he died.
The exact amount he spent may never be known. Some say $100,000, some say 3 or 4 times that. John was content just to spend the remainder of his life, visiting the grave and sometimes watching from under a nearby tree as people came to see the 11 life sized statues of he and his wife.
Life magazine dispatched famed, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Ernie Pyle to interview John. When asked, he declined to reveal the cost, stating simply that it wasn’t anyone’s business. About the town’s folk, Pyle reported John as saying, “They hate me…but it’s my money and I spent it the way I pleased.” Secretly, John had given away quite a bit of his money to help those in need, a couple hundred dollars at a time, but popular opinion of him was that he was, “a taciturn, short-tempered and prosperous farmer who, presumably, went broke cluttering his little burial plot.”
Some citizens of Hiawatha went so far as to stop him on the street to tell him what they thought of him and his grave. John had cards printed that he sometimes gave to people that approached him that read, “A prayer for today—Oh, Lord, help me keep my damn nose out of other people’s business”. The city government discouraged any publicity as many envisioned, “a swelling stream of tourists traipsing among the graves of our departed relatives to stare at the statues of a man nobody liked and a woman who was a stranger to most of her neighbors.”
John lived on another 10 years after completing the monument before finally joining his Sarah beneath the great granite canopy. He died completely penniless, at the age of 93 in the Brown County Hillcrest Home – an infirmary for the indigent. He was reported as saying, ” I don’t mind goin’ because I’ll join Sarah. When you got a reunion like that to look forward to, The End don’t hold any terror.” To add to the chagrin of city officials, John had made no provision for keeping up the sculptured showpiece of little Mount Hope cemetery and there was no sentiment for spending public funds to preserve the unique and expensive monument that had, in its way, put Hiawatha on the map. Some of the more imaginative of citizens envisioned the peaceful highway close to the cemetery ‘bristling with hot dog and hamburger stands to satisfy the appetites of a morbid mob of visitors and cash in on public curiosity’.
Hiawatha lies 40 miles west of St. Joseph, MO on US Highway 36 – the Pony Express Highway at the juncture with Highway 73 (which was once the principle road between Kansas City and Omaha). While not conveying the middle-of-nowhere, desolate loneliness of western Kansas, it is, as some would say, smack dab in the middle of Bumfuck, Egypt.
When you first exit the highway, you are greeted by an empty hotel that has been out of business for some years now. As you drive along the short distance to the Mount Hope Cemetery, you pass a McDonald’s, perchance a prophesy come true to satisfy the morbid mob that never really came. The national construction of the interstates rerouted much of the traffic that passed through the quiet town in the heart of wheat and corn country and the town has seen a steady decline in population, like many other small plains towns, having less citizenry than it did in 1940.
Despite their initial hearty disinterest in the memorial as a landmark and a tourist attraction, the city has embraced the memorial as it’s biggest and best known tourist attraction. John Milburn Davis and his beloved Sarah are finally embraced by a town that would have seen them long ago forgotten. Proof that time heals all wounds and love can, in the end, triumph all and that in some cases, you can take it with you.
“I learned you can’t please everybody, so I stopped tryin’. It pleases me to tell my love this here way an’ that’s the way I’m goin’ to do it.” – John Milburn Davis, San Antonio Light ~ October 20, 1946
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