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St. Cloud statue has unique history

    Amid trees and steady traffic, and overshadowed by the Empire Apartment building in downtown St. Cloud, a bronze statue stands, seemingly forgotten, and not recognized by many who pass by it. It’s not easy to get a close look at this remnant from the past. The curious need to park the car and walk on the sidewalk next to a busy First Street North to get a good look at this local treasure.

     The bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln has stood at this site, 54 4th Ave. North, since 1918, when it was dedicated at a Memorial Day ceremony at a long-gone Empire Park. A year earlier, St. Cloud Mayor Peter Seberger, with the assistance of local war veterans, ordered the statue of our 16th President from the William H. Mullins Company of Salem, Ohio.

    The 6-foot 4-inch Lincoln holds a scroll with the words “Proclamation of Emancipation” (declaring slaves shall be free) in his left hand. He wears an overcoat and a vest and stands with his left foot forward.  On the base beneath the statue, are the words “Dedicated to the McKelvy Post, No. 134 G.A.R. of St. Cloud, MN.” Lower on the base are words from Lincoln’s second inaugural address given March 3, 1865, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.”

    Empire Park was one of the city’s earliest parks located on the banks of the Mississippi River. It was a popular gathering spot for the community a century ago, but the park was eventually swallowed up by the growing city. A few decades ago, one of the first high-rise apartment buildings, Empire Apartments, was built at the location of the former park. At the time of construction, the statue was actually moved; however, its location is not very visible.

    St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis recently announced that the Lincoln statue will be restored later this year and then relocated to a more prominent site, where it will be more visible to the public. “The final relocation of this statue along the Mississippi River is a great tribute to a great emancipator who reunited a nation,” he said.  Kleis is a history buff who, when he’s not overseeing city business, leads groups of citizens on historical trolley tours of St. Cloud.  Kleis said that he highlights the Lincoln  statue during the tour. (The free, hour-long tours are offered a few times a year. Tours are open to the public, but there is limited space. Information on the trolley tours is listed on the city’s website.)

    It’s planned that, once restored, the Lincoln statue will be moved to a location near an extended Beaver Island Trail, near the River’s Edge Convention Center. Kleis said the move will occur sometime in 2014.

    Even though many people in the St. Cloud community are unaware there is a Lincoln statue in the downtown area, that’s not necessarily the case for the residents of the Empire Apartments. Mary Craig, a resident for six years, spoke proudly of the statue on their south lawn. “It is our symbol of freedom,” she said. “I sit out here with Lincoln every afternoon. There’s some nice shade here.” Craig doesn’t want the statue to be relocated. She likes it right where it is. Friend and fellow resident, Andrea McCann, agreed that it will feel odd not to have the statue right outside their door.  “But more people could see it and appreciate it if it were moved to a place… like Munsinger Gardens,” thought Craig.

    There has been some confusion about the name of the sculptor of this Lincoln statue and several others like it around the nation. It has also been noted that there is an absence of documentation on the St. Cloud statue.  In his book, He Belongs to the Ages: The Abraham Lincoln Statues, published in 1951, author  Donald Charles Durman  compiled a list of statues, their locations and dates of dedication, sculptor’s name, type of work and material. Durman makes no mention of the Lincoln in St. Cloud. The author also mistakenly gives credit to the sculptor, Alphonso Pelzer, for creating eight statues, located in New Jersey, Michigan, Idaho, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Nebraska.

    Pelzer was a sculptor for the Mullins Company in 1898 when he created a 7-foot Lincoln for Middlesex, N.J. It still stands today. But, Pelzer returned to Germany shortly thereafter, and the Mullins Company hired a new sculptor, John Segesman, who crafted several Lincoln statues, including the one in St. Cloud.

    In 1948, Segesman wrote a letter to the editor of the Wooster, Ohio Daily Record, in order to “clear up the mystery of the origin of the Lincoln statue” located on the college campus in Wooster. Segesman, age 83 at the time he sent the letter, gave details about some differences between his work and Pelzer’s. He wrote that in 1897, Pelzer modeled an over-life-size statue of Lincoln from photographs. When Pelzer returned to Germany in 1899, he (Segesman) became the new Mullins staff sculptor. It was in 1915 that he received orders to make a life-size model of Lincoln. Segesman wrote that he copied the face from a plaster mask sent from Washington, D.C., and, because there was no beard and the eyes were blank spots, Segesman copied the missing areas from an oil painting.

Mary Craig and Andrea McCann enjoy Lincoln in their yard.

    Empire resident Craig thinks Lincoln originally wore a hat, but earlier photos do not support this.

    When the statue is moved a few blocks to the south next year, Craig and McCann will have a longer walk if they want to visit Lincoln. But, with the relocation, the nearly 100-year-old statue will provide a reason for new generations of walkers, bikers, visitors, school students, community members and others to gather and reflect and to appreciate this bit of history in their midst.

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