“You’re going to Hiawatha? You’ve got to stop at the cemetery!” I overheard my boss exclaim this and I had to eavesdrop because WUT? Apparently, some bitter farmer built a unsightly memorial for his wife just to spite the small Kansas town. That sounded intriguing enough and so begins all good road trip stories: I decided we had to stop and see John Milburn Davis grave someday.
I’ll be the first to admit that some of my road trip stops are more memorable for being weird and/or lame rather than “good.” The Davis Memorial? It was one of those weird stops. My husband is a patient man. Let’s just say I was dazzled by the backstory of the Davis Memorial at Mount Hope Cemetery than the actual memorial.
Keep reading, though, because while seeing the strange memorial itself is ho-hum, the story behind it is 100% bizarre and catty. I love it.
Related post: The strangest town in Kansas has to be Lucas, though.
John Davis and the seven-year grave project
In my mind, John Millburn Davis is the Midwestern Great Depression’s version of Ebenezer Scrooge. The story goes that as a wealthy farmer without any kids, he had a lot of money at his disposal when his wife, Sarah, died in 1930. So the town’s folk were all like “Maybe you can help us build a hospital?” and “The kids sure would like a playground” and he was like “Go away.”
Actually, the story I heard is that John didn’t like speaking to anyone, so he probably never said “Go away.” They say he carried around business cards that read “I’ll thank you very kindly to mind your business.” For real.
Anyway, he decided his money was better spent building a memorial for Sarah…and his neighbors believed he did it not just to spite the townsfolk.
“They suspect his generous gift was intended more as a slap in the face to his wife’s heirs than it was a tribute to Sarah. And resentment lingers over Davis’ refusal to be a benefactor to Hiawatha in its hour of need.” On the City of Hiawatha’s website, “The stubbornness of Davis toward his project in the face of public criticism was prelude to a legend.”
At first, he had a relatively small memorial carved in granite. A 522-ton granite canopy was placed over the burial plot, supported by six granite pillars. Beneath it, he had the likeness of himself and Sarah carved into marble as they were on their 50h wedding anniversary. The statues and canopy cost a fortune, since they were carved in Italy.
(It’s at this point in the story that I like to imagine a Tiny Tim-like character approach John as he’s looking over the memorial. And the wee boy asks if John would now build a playground. And John laughs and laughs.)
John wasn’t done. Not at all.
He had two more marble statues commissioned: He and Sarah reflecting their youthfulness on their 10th anniversary.
And then he had another pair of the couple made, this time showing what they looked like back in 1898. He didn’t have a beard then.
Side story: The story goes that his beard was burned off during a farm accident.
He still wasn’t finished!
He had a fourth pair of statues made, but since it was getting pretty crowded under the granite canopy, he had the statues seated away from the others. This 1908 version of the couple shows John without a left hand. He lost it either in another farming accident or an infection.
He kept going. Of course he kept going.
He commissioned another carving in granite, one of him seated next to an empty chair inscribed with “The Vacant Chair.” And finally, the last pair of statues were installed in 1934. These two portrayed Sarah as an angel and John kneeling at the foot of their graves.
It all sounds like a big, granite and marble middle finger to the town of Hiawatha, doesn’t it?
A pamphlet for the memorial explained that Davis supposedly said “if you can’t please everyone, you have to please yourself.”
Wait, that’s a song lyric.
But he did, in fact, tell a reporter in 1938 that “It’s my money and I spend it the way I please. They hate me.”
In all, he had commissioned six life-sized statues of himself and five of his wife over the course of seven years. Estimates on exactly how much he spent on the memorial range from $100,000 to $1 million. During the Great Depression.
John Davis died in 1947 and was buried next to Sarah. He was 92.
Hiawatha’s most famous attraction today
If you go visit the memorial, you’ll encounter a few things that probably don’t fit well into your mind’s image of the whole set-up. I didn’t mention the wall that John had built around the space in 1935.
“Kindly keep off the memorial”
Apparently, the odd memorial had become a tourist destination in the 1930s, so to protect his creations, a 3-foot-tall wall was erected.
(I like to think that the town’s kids started using the memorial as a playground since he obviously wasn’t going to build them one.)
Because I don’t think John planned for this wall, it’s super close to the statues. It just looks all wrong.
But I digress.
When you visit the gravesite now, the kneeling statue of John is now headless since it was vandalized in 1990. The head has never been recovered.
PS: The town was able to build its hospital and playground, along with a number of other projects, thanks to the funds that came in from all the tourists visiting over the decades.
PPS: I found out that he secretly gave away thousands of dollars over the years. So, he wasn’t a complete jerk.
Finding the Davis Memorial
Mount Hope Cemetery
Where: 606 E. Iowa St., Hiawatha, Kansas
Cost: Free to visit