The Civil War Soldier statue in Lewiston’s Kennedy Park sculpted by Franklin Simmons. Sun Journal photo by Russ Dillingham

LEWISTON — One of the 19th century’s most illustrious sculptors, who went to work in a cotton mill at age 15 and learned his art using clay from the banks of the Androscoggin River, got his start professionally in a tiny Main Street studio here before the Civil War.

Franklin Simmons entered the field with nothing but empty pockets, a tub of potter’s clay, a few modeling sticks and big dreams that, against all odds, somehow came true.

He died a wealthy man in Rome with his work on display around the country, hailed as a leader in his field, renowned for his bronze and marble images of historic figures from Alexander Hamilton to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Not all of his legacy rests far afield, though.

Two of Simmons’ full-length bronze statues stand within a mile of his old workshop, while two of his earliest pieces — marble busts of a pair of dignified fellows — reside on a shelf behind the reference desk of the Lewiston Public Library.

At least five other works from the largely forgotten artist’s early years are missing.

One of them may have gone up in flames after showman P.T. Barnum apparently displayed it in a legendary New York City museum under the pretense it came from ancient Greece. The others, though, have simply slipped out of sight.

The Smithsonian has a list of 97 known works by Simmons, including a number in and around the U.S. Capitol in Washington. The four that exist on public view in Lewiston and Auburn are not among those cited.

In addition to the two busts at the library, Simmons also created the Civil War soldier standing guard in Lewiston’s Kennedy Park and a full-size bronze of philanthropist Edward Little, completed in 1877 and restored a few years ago, that watches over his namesake Auburn high school.

Whatever else Simmons created that may remain in the community is unknown.

LEWISTON’S MISSING SIMMONS SCULPTURES

When Simmons died in Rome in 1913, The New York Times noted that one of his old friends in Lewiston proudly possessed his first statue, “The Sailor Boy.”

Where it is today is a mystery.

An early bust by Simmons, apparently done in clay in December 1857 and depicting mathematician Nathaniel Bowditch, was “kept with care in the city of Lewiston, standing upon a bracket in the Hill Mill” where Simmons took his first job. Where it is now, though, is an open question.

An early statue he made called “The Newsboy” was in the possession of Bates College for more than two decades, but disappeared long ago. The college has no record of it.

The fate of another early missing work, a bust of Bates College founder Oren Cheney, is perhaps not so mysterious. It was one of Simmons’ early works, mentioned in a profile written about him shortly before his death.

Back in 1928, The Bates Student carried a story in its pages headlined “History of Stolen Bust Now Revealed” that purported to explain what happened to the bust that Cheney, the college president, “had come to idolize.”

The statue of Edward Little outside the Auburn school. Sun Journal photo by Russ Dillingham

According to the detailed but unsourced tale, the Phi Chi Society at Bowdoin College in nearby Brunswick, which had “secured a very fine collection of souvenirs” over time, decided its trove needed one thing it didn’t have — a bust of somebody.

Three members of the society set out in the rain “in the very early hours of the morning” to remedy the omission by snatching Cheney’s bust, the Bates student paper reported.

“By carefully removing a square of glass they were able to steal the trophy which they coveted,” it said. “They wrapped it carefully and sliding it into the wagon, returned to their native haunts” early enough to avoid detection.

An angry Cheney first questioned his own students, but when all of them denied having anything to do with the theft, Cheney issued a wider search, from Bowdoin to Dartmouth. He found no sign of the bust anywhere.

When the Bowdoin thieves approached graduation, the Bates paper said, they weren’t sure what to do with Cheney’s bust. Lacking a better idea, they decided to send it to P.T. Barnum at a time when the famous shuckster was gathering material for a second museum in New York City.

Barnum’s first American Museum went up in flames in 1865, boiling two beluga whales and turning his collection of treasures to ash, including a purported fossil of a “Feejee Mermaid” that in reality offered patrons the head of a monkey sewn onto the tail of a fish.

Supposedly, Cheney’s bust wound up on a shelf with many others in the museum’s second incarnation, where Wilton’s Sylvia Hardy, almost 7 feet tall, was also on display as the “Maine Giantess.”

The Cheney bust was said to have been identified in the museum as the ancient Greek philosopher Sophocles.

Barnum, who once proclaimed a sucker is born every minute, allegedly claimed the bust had been made from a death mask of Sophocles that had been purchased abroad for $25,000.

That piece, once treasured by Cheney, apparently hasn’t been seen again since the second museum also went up in smoke in 1868, clearing the way for Barnum to shift to the circus business.

EARLY YEARS IN LEWISTON

A bust of Lyman Nichols, circa 1860, by Franklin Simmons behind the reference desk at the Lewiston Public Library. Sun Journal photo by Russ Dillingham

For Simmons, Lewiston initially proved fertile ground for his artistry

Not long before the Civil War, a 15-year-old Simmons moved to Lewiston with his parents from Bath and got a job as the assistant paymaster at the Hill Mill, a new cotton products manufacturer in a big brick building astride one of the city’s canals.

Its counting room didn’t exactly appeal to him, though.

“His artistic temperament chafed under the drudgery of his employment,” Augustine Simmons, his uncle, recorded years later. The artist’s co-workers were said to be “amazed at his genius in crayon work and cameo figures.”

Simmons spent as much time as he could spare making model figures out of the coarse clay he gathered beside the Androscoggin River.

Simmons lacked any training and didn’t have much education. What he did have, though, was talent.

At least two Lewiston men in particular helped spur Simmons’ ambitions — a popular local Baptist minister, the Rev. George Knox, and the editor of the Lewiston Evening Journal, Frank Dingley, who taught him Latin in the evenings and remained a lifelong friend.

Simmons liked Dingley so much that he painted the editor’s portrait and gave it to him, one of the few paintings mentioned in any account of the artist’s life. The two others cited were also of Lewiston dignitaries of the day, Willard Small and Charles B. Stetson.

A trip to Boston, where he stood awed by a statue of Benjamin Franklin standing in front of Boston’s Old City Hall, may have convinced Simmons to pursue his artistic calling.

While in Boston, the young artist managed to pick up a few tips from an old hand, the only professional advice he received before embarking on his career.

Dingley wrote later that Simmons came back from Boston with “the flame for art kindled anew in his breast” and that he had “formed his resolution to create reality out of daydreams.”

The budding artist decided to quit the mill and devote himself to sculpture.

His friends tried to talk him out of it since it seemed likely to doom him to “proverbial poverty or dubious pittance” instead of a paying career, Dingley wrote. “It seemed to be a voluntary exchange of roast beef for porridge!”

Simmons attended seminary briefly, part of what became Bates College, and then faced the fact that he was too poor to pursue further education.

A bust of William Wood, circa 1860, by Franklin Simmons behind the reference desk at the Lewiston Public Library. Sun Journal photo by Russ Dillingham

At 19, Simmons opened his first studio in a nook of an upper room in Waldron’s Block, a building on lower Main Street near the bridge, a business listed in the 1860 Lewiston directory.

Dingley wrote that Simmons was “full of doubts and tears but prepared to face fate” as he sought to pursue his art.

His first order, according to one account, was for a bust of the Rev. Knox, another work that appears to be missing. Knox, a chaplain in the war, died in Virginia in 1864 when his horse reared and fell on him. He is buried in Lewiston.

Simmons must have done well with Knox’s bust because other orders followed for ones showing Gov. Lot Morrill, Colby College President James Tift Champlin, Bowdoin professor Alpheus Parkard, Gen. Samuel Fessenden, J.H. Drummond and a number of others, probably including the one of Cheney.

The two held at the Lewiston library — each depicting a Boston man from the mid-1800s who played a pivotal role in the creation of Lewiston’s canals and cotton products manufacturing — were apparently created by Simmons in his Rome studio years later.

One of them, wearing a toga, shows Lyman Nichols, a former president of the Boston National Bank and among the first investors in the Lewiston Water Power Co. that became Bates Manufacturing.

The other, William B. Wood, a former treasurer of the Franklin and Continental Corps., is shown with a bushy mustache and an old-fashioned, three-piece suit.

Cards on the wall beside the busts indicate they were created about 1860 and came to the library as gifts from the Franklin Co., which once owned much of downtown Lewiston.

But carved into the Wood bust is the year 1882 with the designation that Simmons carved it in Rome.

What’s most striking about the busts, though, is the way librarians have vamped up them up to catch patrons’ attention.

One day, they’d added a necklace of purple beads and a Batman mask to Nichols’ bust, and a gold headband with a pink paper star to the one honoring Wood.

At Christmastime, librarians have adorned the busts with twinkling lights. Sometimes the marble heads have top hats or big bright scarves or any number of colorful accoutrements.

Decorating the busts apparently has a long tradition.

One 1900 story mentioned that the Bowditch bust at the Hill Mill, described at the time as the best-known bit of the sculptor’s work locally, had been, to the dismay of some, “carefully gilded.”

FROM CLAY TO STONE

In Great Barrington, Massachusetts, there’s a statue on public display renowned as the first to depict a newsboy.

Col. William Brown, a part-owner of the New York Daily News, commissioned the statue erected in a public park in 1895 as the centerpiece of a display that included a water trough for horses to get a drink.

Nothing against the stellar statue in the Berkshires, but it wasn’t the first to depict a newsboy.

Young Simmons created a statue called “The Newsboy” before the Civil War on the banks of the Androscoggin River.

The trouble is, nobody knows what happened to it.

A photograph of an early 20th century newsboy by Lewis Hine. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Perhaps the greatest mystery in Simmons’ career surrounds that statue, which some have called his first serious work.

Made of marble, the short statue featured a barefoot newsboy dressed in rags “on the run with a package of Journals” under his arm, one of its models, William “Billy” Duckworth, recalled four decades later.

“It was a wonderful creation and gave him great prestige in Lewiston,” Duckworth said.

Bates President George Chase, who spent half a century at the college until his death in 1919, recalled hearing that Simmons had cast the statue from a real-life model during his brief stint as a seminary student — and that the sculptor cherished it.

Lewiston Evening Journal Editor Frank Dingley wrote in 1868 that Simmons created the work after opening his studio in Lewiston.

Simmons created the work with the help of boys willing to volunteer their time to model for him.

Duckworth, who worked at the Hill Mill with Simmons, knew that his older friend had an artistic bent since Simmons constantly drew sketches that he happily handed over to his subjects.

One day, Simmons decided to try chiseling stone to create a statue, Duckworth said.

So Simmons secured the right to chip away at some marble at an old stonework shop that stood at the Auburn end of the North Bridge that spanned the Androscoggin River.

A 12-year-old newsboy, Hyman Alpert, had been selling papers for three years before Lewis Wickes Hine took this photograph in 1912. Courtesy of the National Archives

Duckworth was among the boys who posed bare-footed and raggedly clad with a bundle of newspapers to provide his buddy Simmons with real-life models.

He recalled that Simmons “would take any lad who happened by” as a model, using different people as it took shape to create the face, hands and arms. In the end, it meant that the statue didn’t really look like anyone in particular, Duckworth said.

“Simmons was not the least a hero to the models” either, Duckworth said, because he got moody trying to master his craft.

In the end, Simmons must have been pleased with his work.

Later accounts said the original of the statue reposed for years in the former Manufacturers’ & Mechanics’ library room in the old City Hall. When that building burned in 1890, the artwork did not survive the blaze, news accounts said.

But there were multiple copies.

Chase said it had been “reproduced in several plaster casts,” one of which was destroyed in the fire while another found its way to the Bates College campus, where it stood for two decades in the literary fraternity room in Hathorn Hall.

“That cast was dear to Mr. Simmons’ heart, probably because it was really his first work of any consequence,” Chase told a newspaper in 1913.

THE SPECIAL ‘NEWSBOY’ SCULPTURE

To support his notion, Chase related a story told to him by John C. White, the steward in charge of Bates’ Parker Hall in the early days of the college.

One day, after Simmons had been away from Lewiston for some time, the sculptor tracked down White at the school and told him he wanted to get into the literary hall.

“Mr. White had walked across to Hathorn Hall in company with the young artist and he remarked to himself on the haste and nervousness shown by Simmons,” Chase said.

“When the door of the old literary room was thrown open by the steward, the sculptor rushed in and caught up, tenderly, the Newsboy statue, tears streaming down his face and falling on the old plaster cast,” Chase said.

The two men remained there for some time, he said, “and then Simmons went away, leaving the cast in its place on the mantle in that room, where it remained for a score of years until someone, not appreciating its character and worth, made away with it.”

“Its further history remains unknown to this day,” Chase said 106 years ago.

Six years earlier, when Duckworth shared his memories, the statue had already vanished. The story about its carving in 1900 mentioned that the statue “had long been lost sight of,” though many recalled its existence.

Duckworth said that Simmons in his later years “tried to find the statue and failed.”

Duckworth also mentioned that when Simmons tried to get his hands on a bust he had made of Nathaniel Bowditch at one of the mills, people hid it from him because they didn’t want to give it up, perhaps an indication that someone may have been in no hurry to hand over The Newsboy as well.

One reason to believe a copy, and perhaps the original, survived is a 1904 story in the Lewiston Evening Journal, edited by Simmons’ mentor Dingley, that said one of the statues “still exists in this city.”

It did not say where.

One intriguing idea is that The New York Times, in its 1913 obituary of Simmons, got a key fact wrong. It said that one of the sculptor’s “old friends in Lewiston proudly possessed his first statue,” which it cited as “The Sailor Boy.”

Given that there are a number of accounts that cite The Newsboy as Simmons’ first statue, it’s certainly possible that the paper simply got the name wrong. By that time, many of Simmons’ old friends in the area were dead. Dingley, though, was not.

When Dingley died in 1918, leaving behind an esteemed art collection, his old paper credited him with “the first influences that took Franklin Simmons out of the mill in Lewiston and made him one of the great sculptors of the world.”

It said that Simmons “was a peculiar man, distant, unapproachable to the world,” but not with Dingley, who the sculptor loved as a brother. The story said the two kept up a steady correspondence through the years and that Simmons often queried visitors from America about whether they knew Dingley.

It’s interesting to note that when Dingley wrote about Simmons’ departure for Europe in 1868, he briefly mentioned “the little ideal figure entitled The Newsboy” and then asserted a copy — not the original — had landed in the library.

Edith Adams, in a paper written at Bates in 1914, said the statue at the library was made of plaster, not marble.

If the versions at both Bates and City Hall were each made of plaster, the obvious question, which has no answer, is what happened to the marble one?

SIMMONS ON THE LARGER STAGE

Probably the oldest public example of Simmons’ work dates from 1859. Called “To the Memory of Robert P. Dunlap,” an early Maine governor, it is a simple bust atop a granite base on Dunlap’s grave in the Pine Grove Cemetery in Brunswick.

Shortly after, Simmons set up a studio in Portland.

His first major commission led him to carve a life-size marble statue of a Union Army general, Hiram Berry of Rockland, who died in 1863’s bloody showdown at Chancellorsville in Virginia. It stands above Berry’s grave in Achorn Cemetery in Rockland.

After a few years as an artist in Maine, Simmons headed to the nation’s capital while the Civil War still raged, where he met many military leaders and even wound up doing a statue of Abraham Lincoln, who sat with him shortly before the president’s fatal trip to Ford’s Theater in 1865.

Just 25 when he headed to Washington, Dingley wrote, Simmons was almost unknown, “laboring under many disadvantages, having few if any influential friends, and booked from Maine — that most hard school of practical life and most unpromising field for art — this was a personage who in turn rapidly and yet with confessed success received sittings from more than a score of the leading military heroes and statesmen of the age.”

Many Union leaders posed for Simmons for a series of large, bronze medallions depicting them, mostly purchased by the Union League of Philadelphia. Simmons also made busts of some of them.

An early, important commission for Simmons came from Lewiston.

Just 18 months after the Civil War ended, the city paid him $5,000 to create the 7-foot-tall “Soldier’s Monument” dedicated in 1868, one of the earliest memorials of the war and perhaps the first in a public setting other than a cemetery.

Dedicated in February 1868, the Lewiston Evening Journal called Simmons’ statue a classical work of art that captured the “patriotic decision, nerve pluck and coolness” of an ordinary soldier who had “faith in the future, the product of dutiful service in the past.”

Simmons, on hand for the unveiling, accepted “very much less” than the normal cost for a half-ton bronze work, Dingley’s paper noted, “having a natural pleasure in leaving behind him in his native city some witness of his artistic hand.”

The statue proved so popular that cities and towns across the country erected versions of it in the decades that followed.

Soon after, Simmons collected honorary degrees from Bates, Colby and Bowdoin colleges in Maine before moving to Rome, a mecca for stone carvers. He lived there for almost half a century, honored three times by Italian kings as he churned out statues of American military and political leaders as well as classical scenes based on mythology.

Monument to 19th century American poet and educator Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Portland, Maine’s, Longfellow Square. Longfellow, whose works include “Paul Revere’s Ride,” “The Song of Hiawatha” and “Evangeline,” was born in Portland in 1807. Franklin Simmons began the design and construction of the monument in 1885, three years after the poet’s death. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith courtesy of the Library of Congress

Among the better known ones are a sculpture of Longfellow in Portland, the General John Alexander Logan Monument in Washington and “Valley Forge” in the Washington Memorial Chapel in Pennsylvania.

Simmon’s full-length marble rendering of President Ulysses S. Grant stands in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, one of many of his works on Capitol Hill. Among the others are “Peace Monument” on the grounds of the Capitol and statues inside of Maine’s first governor, William King, Rhode Island founder Roger Williams and Francis Harrison Pierpont.

Simmon’s sculptures are in the collections of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the de Young Museum in San Francisco, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

He kept working until the day he died, but he wasn’t thrilled with the direction the art world was heading.

He told one Maine friend that impression, all the rage in Paris at the time, “seems to represent the lowest degradation to which art can sink.”

Simmons, who married a Lewiston woman, never stopped visiting Maine, where much of his family lived, and seems to have maintained a soft spot for his native land.

Simmons once expressed hope late in life that “when Portland’s streets are lined with statues, with beautiful fountains playing in her parks and great masterpieces adorning her museum, she will be come a dream of beauty to which will throng our people from every part of the Republic.”

After he died in 1913, his personal collection was shipped to what became the Portland Museum of Art, which holds more of his work than any other institution. Simmons had hoped to create an art museum in his name in Portland, but died before he could organize one.

Few remember Simmons anymore, but since art has a way of resurrecting neglected giants of the past, perhaps Simmons will emerge from the shadows again someday.

Meanwhile, his art remains, a legacy of a time when heroes and hope characterized a nation that enjoyed seeing its leaders chiseled in stone or immortalized in bronze.

Sculptor Franklin Simmons in 1910. Courtesy of Twentieth Century Magazine

 

Sculptor Franklin Simmons in an early 20th century photograph in the Lewiston Evening Journal.

 

The 1899 statue of Ulysses S. Grant carved by Franklin Simmons, who spent a week in camp with the Union general outside Richmond, Virginia, in the final months of the Civil War. Grant’s widow proclaimed the sculpture, on display inside the U.S. Capitol, as the best likeness anyone made of her husband. Courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol

The 44-foot-high Peace Monument, finished in 1878 by Franklin Simmons, commemorated those killed at sea during the Civil War. Courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol

Among Franklin Simmons’ works at the U.S. Capitol is a marble statue of Maine’s first governor, William King, one of two people chosen to represent Maine in a gallery of statues in Washington. Courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol

 

“The Angel of Resurrection,” carved by the sculptor after his second wife’s death, stands atop the grave of Franklin Simmons and his second wife, Emma, in Rome.

 

 

 

A 1921 photo from the Library of Congress of Franklin Simmons’ statue of Union Gen. John Alexander Logan. It is the centerpiece of Logan Circle on Iowa Avenue in Washington, D.C.

 

The Civil War memorial in Lewiston, as it looked in 1870, created by sculptor Franklin Simmons in 1868. By J.A. McFadden, courtesy of maine.gov.

Monument to 19th century American poet and educator Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Portland, Maine’s, Longfellow Square. Longfellow, whose works include “Paul Revere’s Ride,” “The Song of Hiawatha” and “Evangeline,” was born in Portland in 1807. Franklin Simmons began the design and construction of the monument in 1885, three years after the poet’s death. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

 

Franklin Simmons was listed in an 1860 Lewiston directory as a sculptor working on Main Street.  


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