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Sculptor Of Crazy Horse Mountain: The Connecticut Connections

Korczak Ziolkowski, who started his sculpting business and a family in West Hartford, created a huge sculpture of Native American hero Crazy Horse in the Black Hills of South Dakota. His widow and children continue the project to this day.

1969 Postcard of mountain
1969 Postcard of mountain
By Philip R. Devlin

Korczak Ziolkowski, America's storyteller in stone, spent most of the 1930s in West Hartford, CT, married a Connecticut native and maintained a close friendship with a renowned doctor from Windsor Locks, CT.

On Sept. 6, 1908, a baby boy was born to Polish-immigrant parents in Boston, MA. His name was Korczak Ziolkowski ( pronounced "jewel-cuff-ski). Orphaned at 1, the youngster spent much of his youth in foster homes. While growing up, he discovered that he had a natural talent for sculpting. This talent first found expression in carving wood for a shipbuilder and then in making furniture. He soon tried his hand at sculpture and moved to West Hartford, CT, to try to make a living as a commissioned sculptor.
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Korczak bought a house on Sedgwick Road and began his work. He soon realized that his new town of West Hartford lacked a suitable memorial to native son Noah Webster, the inventor of the first American dictionary. Needing over $16,000 to pay for the materials, Korczak sponsored a fund-raising effort for the job. He finished a 13-foot statue of Webster in 1941 and unveiled it on Webster's 183rd birthday in October of 1941. Today, the beautiful marble statue of Webster still stands on South Main Street in front of the town's public library.

In 1939, Korczak's talents were recognized at the World's Fair in New York, where he won first prize in a contest for his sculpture of Jan Paderewski. Additionally, renowned sculptor Gutzon Borglum retained Korczak's talents for working on Mt. Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota. That experience marked a turning point in his life. He came to realize that the Lakota Sioux resented having the faces of four American presidents carved into their hills, so he made a promise to Chief Henry Standing Bear that one day he would return to commemorate a hero of the Lakota Sioux as well.

Before he could fulfill his promise, however, World War II intervened. Korczak served his country bravely during the war; in fact, he was wounded on Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944.

Korczak returned to the Black Hills in 1947 to locate a suitable site to commemorate the Lakota Sioux hero, Crazy Horse. He found a mountain suitable for his memorial for Crazy Horse about 17 miles from Mt. Rushmore. His plan was to convert the mountain into the largest free-standing sculpture in the world. The sculpture would depict Crazy Horse riding on a horse with his right arm pointing toward the Black Hills. The inscription would read: "My land is where my dead lie buried."

Korczak began the immense project on June 3, 1948. He married the former Ruth Ross of West Hartford in 1950, and they raised a family of 10 — 5 boys and 5 girls — in the Black Hills. Korczak worked on the project for 34 years before dying in 1982. He worked on plans for the completion of the sculpture during the winter, and 7 of his children as well as Ruth — now 86 — continue to execute the plans.

When complete, the sculpture will stand 563 feet high and be over 640 feet long. It will be the largest free-standing sculpture in the world and will dwarf Mt. Rushmore, since each of the four heads on Rushmore are only about 60 feet tall.

Right from the beginning, Korczak accepted no money from the government. The cost of the project is covered entirely by donations and by admission charges to visitors. The Crazy Horse Memorial has expanded to include museums and educational facilities as well over the years.

While living in West Hartford during the 1930s, Korczak befriended Ettore F. Carniglia, the renowned doctor from Windsor Locks. "Carney" as he was called, remained in close contact throughout the years and even visited Crazy Horse Mountain in August of 1969 on one of the doctor's rare vacations.

In a letter written to me last year, Ruth Ziolkowski had this to say about Carney's visit: 

As you mentioned in your letter, it was very rare for Dr. Carniglia to take a vacation, but I do recall a time when he made a visit to Crazy Horse. Korczak was thrilled to give him a personal tour of the complex and a trip to the top of the mountain. He was very interested and excited to see the progress that Korczak was making on the mountain carving and in an effort to see everything, he stepped a little too close to the edge. Needless to say, he ended up sliding quite a ways on the seat of his pants and was black and blue for quite awhile after.

Ruth Ziolkowski is alive and well out there in the Black Hills. The West Hartford native and her children remain committed to finishing the remarkable undertaking that her husband began in 1948. It is still a work in progress, but as you can see from the Gallery photos, Crazy Horse is beginning to emerge from the mountain.

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