Mrs. Whitney statue revealed in special ceremony

MARSHALL – More than 100 years ago, Mary Whitney was present for the city of Marshall’s beginnings, and she even gave the town its name. On Sunday, the efforts of Marshall’s modern-day residents to honor her came to fruition.

“I want to say, ‘Welcome, Mrs. Whitney, on your return to Marshall,'” said Ellayne Conyers, as she addressed the audience at a ceremony in Liberty Park.

City officials and Marshall area community members unveiled a bronze statue of Whitney in front of a crowd of about 50 people. As partitions were moved away to reveal the sculpture, there was applause and even a few gasps.

Conyers, one of the speakers at the ceremony, said the sculpture is historic in more than one way.

“There are only six statues dedicated to women in the whole state of Minnesota. We have number seven, so Marshall is making history,” Conyers said.

Besides helping to beautify downtown and honoring Marshall’s history, Conyers said Mrs. Whitney’s statue also helps recognize the role that women played in the settling of Minnesota. They rarely made the history books, but they did vital work, Conyers said.

Mary Whitney was a woman who did make it into the local histories, Conyers said. She was the wife of Charles H. Whitney, who ran the post office in what is now Marshall. When a train of 250 men from the railroad company rode out to the site of the town in 1872, Mary was in charge of providing a meal for them all. After supper, when the railroad officials couldn’t agree who among themselves to name the town for, Mary showed considerable diplomatic skill.

“She said, ‘Let’s name it after my husband’s post office,’ which was named after Gov. William Marshall,” Conyers said. The town was baptized Marshall.

Sunday’s statue dedication was the end result of years of planning and work, said Becky Wyffels of the statue project committee. Community members wanted to find a way to represent what figures like Mary Whitney meant for Marshall’s history and community.

“It had been percolating for a long time,” Wyffels said.

Funding from a state Legacy grant made the sculpture project possible, supporters said. Local artist Jim Dahl was commissioned to design a statue of Mrs. Whitney, with Jim Swartz and John Sterner also working and mentoring with Dahl.

Dahl’s statue design was nearly complete when he died suddenly in 2012. The possibility of having another artist finish the statue was explored, Swartz said, but it would have been hard to do without changing Dahl’s vision. The work started over from the beginning, with Sterner commissioned to design the statue.

“John had his artist’s vision of what the piece would be like, and we had Jim’s vision to guide us through the process,” Swartz said.

Standing 5 feet 8 inches tall, Sterner’s finished design is slightly larger-than-life and cast in bronze with a colored patina. Sterner said he tried to represent Marshall and the story of the town’s naming through the sculpture. Mrs. Whitney’s hair and skirt are shown blowing in the prairie wind, as she pours out a basin of water baptizing Marshall with its new name. The statue’s green patina also symbolizes the land, as well as the color of the Statue of Liberty in New York.

The site of the statue, near the curve in East College Drive heading toward Main Street, was chosen because it would welcome people to the downtown area, said Marshall Mayor Bob Byrnes. The Whitney statue and the park around it will fit in with the look of Main Street – Byrnes said the landscaping being planned to go around the statue will be designed by the same person who designed Memorial Park.

Supporters of the Whitney statue said they hope it will be the first of several public sculptures honoring figures from Marshall’s history.

Area residents still have a chance to be part of the statue project, supporters said. Additional funding for the statue is being provided through the sale of dedication bricks, which will be placed at the foot of the statue. People interested in purchasing a brick can contact the Marshall Area Fine Arts Council at its office on Third Street, or by calling 507-532-5463.