The Madonna of the Trail sculpture is one of the foremost landmarks of Bethesda., yet one of the least noticed as time has conspired to render her an afterthought in the overall streetscape of Bethesda. The time has come to restore this important monument to a position of prominence in Bethesda’s now urban surroundings.
The sculpture is imposing. She stands 10 feet tall on a 6 foot pedestal and a 2 foot cement base. – 18 feet in all. Dedicated to the courage of “Pioneer Mothers in the Covered Wagon Days,” she gazes at the far horizon with her young family in tow. Here is a description from an article published by the Smithsonian American Art Museum:
A tall woman of stately bearing presses forward with an air of purpose. She has a strong face and wears a plain dress of homespun and a neatly tied sunbonnet. She appears to be a sturdy, work-hardened woman with a determined attitude. Cradling a baby in her left arm, with her right hand she holds the barrel of a rifle, its stock at her feet. A young son clutches at her long skirt as she strides ahead in heavy boots. At the woman’s feet is a bush of thistle, symbolizing the thick underbrush of the wilderness.
THE STATUE'S HISTORIC IMPORTANCE
She is the most important statue in our town, and one of the only statues dedicated to a woman in the state of Maryland. She is also the first of 12 identical statues that mark the system of National Old Trails, from Georgetown to the Pacific Ocean. The Old National Trails system started in Bethesda as "Braddock's Road," built by Major General Edward Braddock to afford his troops an easier march to Fort Duquesne in 1755 during the French and Indian War. The road was later extended west as the Cumberland Road and onwards across the entire continent.
All 12 of these grand monuments were commissioned by the Daughters of the American Revolution in the 1920’s to mark the path west and remind us that it was the spirit of pioneer women that made it possible to build the United States of America. The significance of this statue was well understood when it was first unveiled on April 19, 1929 to 5,000 people gathered to hear speeches from dignitaries led by then-Judge Harry S. Truman. The Madonna’s location was prominent in its day – diagonally across from the County Building, the center of county business at the time, on the corner of Montgomery Lane and Wisconsin Avenue.
PROBLEMS WITH THE CURRENT LOCATION
She has been moved twice since her unveiling in 1929.
1. In March 1982, she was stored to prevent harm during the construction of the Bethesda Metro station. However, Metro chose to put the elevator shaft on her historic location, so a new location was found between the Old Post Office building and the new Hyatt Hotel.
2. In December 2004, the statue tilted on its foundation due to a sinkhole from a water main break, so it was again stored offsite. It was reinstalled in the same location after the ground was stabilized.
There are several problems with the current location.
1. The current location sits on top of the Red Line, exposing the statue to vibrations from subway trains rumbling, shaking the granite and grout and degrading her condition.
2. She is the only Madonna statue facing east when the entire point is to honor the courage and spirit of pioneer women as they headed WEST into the wilderness. We need to face her in the direction of the other 11 identical Madonna statues that mark the trails west.
3. Her current location renders her an afterthought in our streetscape. As one writer put it in 2004, the statue sits “usually unnoticed among the high-rise and hubbub of downtown Bethesda.
WE HAVE A UNIQUE OPPORTUNITY TO ACT NOW
She needs to be moved, and the perfect location is nearby on the site of another of Bethesda's historical gems, the Farm Women's Cooperative Market. This site is on the east side of Wisconsin Avenue, allowing the statue to be oriented facing west, and there is room to create a safe gathering space around it. Associating the Madonna of the Trail with the Co-op site would reinforce the role that women have played in building Bethesda, and it would elevate the Madonna to a new level of prominence in the streetscape of Bethesda.
The Farm Women’s Co-operative Market site is currently the subject of major discussions with developers hoping to build offices and residences on land immediately adjacent to and across the street from the Co-op. The County wants to see the Co-op building renovated. It is an historic structure in its own right, erected in 1933 – just 4 years after the Madonna was dedicated.
So we have begun a campaign to relocate the Madonna of the Trail statue to the Co-op site so that Bethesda’s two monuments to women can reinforce each other and so that the Madonna can finally look west, and keep a safe distance from the constant vibrations of the subway trains. With the support of the Maryland Daughters of the American Revolution, which owns the statue, we have drawn up a petition so that people can demonstrate their interest in this campaign and the importance of this statue to Bethesda.
SIGN THE PETITION, DONATE, VOLUNTEER!
If you would like to help, please
1. Sign the Petition to Restore Bethesda’s Madonna of the Trail to a More Prominent Position In Our City’s Landscape (just click the "Take Action"
button on the home page.)
2. Encourage your friends and neighbors to sign the petition as well.
3. Contact David Moulton if you would like to volunteer time to this effort. David can be reached at David@MadonnaTrailBethesda.
We welcome your interest and support
BETHESDA'S MADONNA OF THE TRAIL STATUE is
* One of the few statues honoring women in the state of Maryland;
* The first of 12 identical statues spread out across the United States to mark our earliest national roads to the west;
* A tribute to the courage and strength of pioneer women.
* Guardian of the first military road in America, built by British General Braddock's army to support his march to Fort Duqesne in 1755.
The following is a short summation of a longer brochure published by the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution titled "The Madonna of the Trail Monument"
In 1911, the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) established the National Old Trails Raod Committee to definitely establish the Old Trails Road as a great National Memorial Highway from ocean to ocean. The National Old Trails Road Association was subsequently formed in 1912 and, under the guidance of its president, Judge Harry S. Truman, guaranteed the expense of erecting the markers to commemorate the trails.
In 1924, the plan changed from small cast iron plaques to the erection of 12 large monuments - one in each state through which the Old Trails Road passes. The actual design for the "Madonna of the Trail" statue was accepted by the DAR in 1927. She was designed by August Leimbach, a sculptor from St. Louis. Each of the statues is identical, formed by pouring algonite stone into a mold.
One by one, Judge Truman presided over the dedication ceremonies which installed 12 Madonna of the Trail monuments in each of 12 towns in 12 states. beginning in 1928 and ending with the final dedication in Bethesda, MD, the week of April 19, 1929.
This completed the memorialization of the trail of a young nation and the brave "pioneer mothers of the covered wagon days" who traveled across the Allegheny Mountains to make their homes in the great western wilderness.
Thus was "the autograph of a Nation written across the face of a continent."
This short video on YouTube, titled "San Bernadino Time Machine: Madonna of the Trail", features the westernmost monument of the 12, located in Upland, California. Click on the button below for a 3 minute journey back in time.