Most central Illinois residents are no strangers to Wildlife Prairie State Park. If you’ve ever investigated its nearly 2,000 acres, you’ve undoubtedly come across the many bronze statues located throughout the facility. And beginning with a dedication on May 31, there’s a new bronze at the Park—a War Dog Memorial, which consists of a Vietnam War-era U.S. soldier/dog handler and his trusty companion.
Wildlife Prairie State Park founder William Rutherford said the statue, by Lake Forest artist Erin Mallon, was cast by Dr. Harry Spell of Oregon, Ill. The idea for the sculpture was appealing to him, Rutherford said, because it honors a conflict—and a fairly unknown job within that conflict—that doesn’t receive much positive attention. “Those veterans are the least appreciated and recognized of all veterans of any war I know of. And the least appreciated of all are the dog handlers.”
Indeed, the dog handlers of the Vietnam War receive scant attention, but their work and—at least equally importantly—the work of the dogs, saved thousands of lives. “The dogs warned the handlers about enemies approaching from behind. They also detected land mines,” Rutherford explained.
Sadly, the dogs’ contributions were overlooked by the government here at home, Rutherford said. “They were treated very badly. Most of the dogs were left over there, and they either starved or became food themselves. It was so bad that a law was passed so something like that would never happen again.”
And thanks to Rutherford, there’s now a permanent, life-size memorial to the overlooked heroes here in central Illinois.
All of the other bronzes have stories, as well, Rutherford said, beginning with the Park’s first acquisition—the famous bronze colt. “During a visit to a park in Stuttgart, Germany many years ago, (my wife) Hazel and I saw a line of people about two blocks long waiting their turn to get the traditional family picture next to a beautiful, bronze, life-size colt. We immediately decided we needed to do the same thing at Wildlife Prairie Park. Dick LeMaster, the nationally known carver of migratory water birds and author of several books on the subject, took pictures and the measurements of a colt we had at the Park—only eight days old at the time. He made a small model for our approval, then made it life-size in wood, and finally had it cast in bronze. It’s been a favorite in the main area at the Prairie from the day we opened, and its back, neck, and ears are always shiny from children’s use. Incidentally, some 26 years later, we still have the horse from which the sculpture was inspired in our Pioneer Area,” he said.
Another familiar sight at the Park is the bronze elk, which was the product of a trip out West. “Passing a very nice gift shop in Livingston, Mont., on our way to Yellowstone National Park, we saw a beautiful life-size elk in full antler atop the shop’s sign. I did a U-turn, drove back, and asked the proprietor where she got the elk. She explained her husband, a then-practicing dentist named Dr. Burl Jones, made it for her for fun. I begged him enough that he very graciously made one for us and delivered it on a vacation trip East. He now devotes full-time to exquisite bronze pieces of American animals and Indians. After some years at the Brookfield Zoo, it was returned to us, and Dr. Spell cast it in bronze in 2002.”
The life-size eagle on a tree branch has special meaning for Rutherford. “In the late 1990s, we commission Lonnie Stewart to sculpt an eagle landing on a dead tree that Hazel had designed. It was dedicated by Gov. George Ryan on September 6, 2001—the anniversary of the governor having accepted Wildlife Prairie Park as a state park at Hazel’s memorial services. Unfortunately, she didn’t live to see her design completed,” he said.
The charming bronzes of puppies and their human playmates draw the attention of visitors of all ages, and Rutherford said the statues, along with another creation, was the result a second trip out West. “In the summer of 2001 on a chance visit to a shop in Durango, Colo.—where I was admiring the quality of their display lighting—I saw the beautiful bronze of two barefooted children and a puppy at an old-fashioned pump (“Puppy Love”). It was irresistible, and I bought it on the spot. Through correspondence on the subject with the artist, Marianne Caroselli of Fair Oaks Ranch, Texas, we acquired the bronze of the old-fashioned Coaster wagon with the boy and the puppies (“Puppy Kisses”). We also acquired from her the World War II Memorial of the airman, soldier, and sailor (“Freedom is not Free”) that we keep on the Information Desk at the Visitors Center.”
The large frog, from which young Park visitors inevitably want a ride, is one of the only non-life-size sculptures in the Park. “About 25 years ago, as a member of a committee promoting the first Earth Week—we used the theme of a frog and a bucket of water—we obtained the artistic assistance of Jerry Vettrus of the F.A.S.T. Corporation of Sparta, Wis., to produce a fiberglass frog ‘as big as he could make it and still go through the ordinary door.’ That fiberglass piece, of museum quality, has been in the Brookfield Zoo Education Department for many years. In 2002, in the process of rebuilding a planned space for small children in the center of the public area at Wildlife Prairie, I thought a bronze frog of the same size would be great for the children to play on. The artist, Mr. Vettrus, again graciously donated his services and loaned us—without charge—the mold he still had. Dr. Spell was able to make the bronze frog—about 600 pounds of it—as a centerpiece for the Blind Children’s Sculpture Garden, which is in the process of being readied for dedication September 14,” Rutherford said.
Many smaller, life-size animals were also prepared for that same upcoming display, he said. “Cara Lawson Ball of Edwardsburg, Mich., assistant professor of Art at Indiana University, very generously contributed all of her artistic services for the creation of about 20 small Illinois animals in life-size, primarily for the benefit of blind children. This is an idea copied from a hairdresser in Melbourne, Australia, who recognized accurate, life-size models as being the easiest to understand for a sightless child or adult. Park sculptures include mice, a chipmunk, rabbit, squirrel, coyote, possum, fox, screech owl, gray horned owl, otter, badger, and a few others. About half are on hand, and the others are in process either by the artist or at Dr. Spell’s foundry.”
There are more bronzes, of course, but the best way to get to know these unique pieces of art is to see them in person at Wildlife Prairie State Park. AA!