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An Essay on the Origin and Repatriation of the Emmetsburg's Statue

by

Amie Lang
February 10, 1999

     Heroes are important to everyone and every country has their own. Harriet Tubman, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Neil Armstrong area few among many of tile United States' long list of heroes. Robert Emmet is one of Ireland's most venerated heroes. lie was very active in the fight to free Ireland from British rule and in 1803, at the young age of twenty-five, was hung for his active role in the fight Emmet was a "true advocate of human rights and a tribute to all who love their country and detest crimes against their fellow mail." (Quoted from the St. Patrick's Day Celebration Pamphlet I obtained.) In the mid 1800's six Irish immigrant families settled in Northwest Iowa, hoping the rich soil would provide good farmland. Several years later, they were joined by more Irish immigrants and established a town. To honor one of their heroes, Robert Emmet, they named the town Emmetsburg. Today, Emmetsburg honors Robert Emmet in another way. A life size bronze statue of him stands in die court house square. The St. Patrick's pamphlet states, "The statue is clothed in an army officer's uniform with an outstretched hand" and "an expression of sorrow." This statue is a part of Emmetsburg and it defines who the people are and what they stand for, but perhaps the legend of how the statue came to stand in the court house square is a better definition of the character of Emmetsburg.

     There are only four of these particular statues in the world, which trace the migration of Irish people in the country. The original is in Dublin, Ireland, and the three others are in San Francisco, California, Washington, D.C. and Emmetsburg. That is a rather impressive fact considering that Emmetsburg, with only 4, 000 people, could be described as a village. In 1916, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish fraternal organization, decided to erect a statue of Robed Emmet in Emmetsburg and spent quite a bit of time searching for someone to make it. They found an Irish immigrant in Philadelphia named Jerome Connor, who had already made a statue of Emmet and still had the mold. Even though it is custom to only make one statue out of a mold, he agreed to make Emmetsburg one. After the figure was finished, the Order could not agree on where to put the it. Because of this, the statue was stored in the basement of O'Brien's grocery store. After nineteen years, in 1935, O'Brien got finally sick of working around the sculpture and sold it to Minnesota business people in St. Paul for thirty-five dollars. When the members of the Emmetsburg Order found out, they were furious, for they had spent more than three thousand dollars to have this statue built, but did nothing about it. However, in St. Paul, those who bought the statue had just as difficult of a time agreeing on a place to put it as the men in Emmetsburg did. The statue of Emmet ended up standing in a man's back yard.. In 1958, Emmetsburg was to have its first centennial celebration, but those in charge could not get any of the community excited about it. As the legend goes, someone found out about the statue being somewhere in St. Paul. One night, several men drove to St. Paul and stole the statue of Robert Emmet from the owner's backyard. When they got back to town, the positioned the statue on the comer of Broadway and Main Street, so that everyone would see it when they went to work. Those who took the statue knew that the police from St Paul would be down to take it back, so they quickly had it cemented to a base in front of tile court house, making it almost impossible to remove. The rest of the legend is not as clear. The life size statue of Robert Emmet still stands in the courtyard, but no one is sure how the issue was finally resolved. It is said that Father Farley paid the men from St. Paul for it, but he never told. As for the men who stole the statue, supposedly they were well-respected community businessmen and did not speak a word of it until several years later and the issue was resolved.

     Many questions came to mind when I began thinking about this story. I never knew specific dates, names or exactly why it had happened. I began my search for facts by contacting my grandma, Liz Culligan. She is the secretary of the St. Patrick's Association, a nonprofit organization who puts on the St. Patrick's celebration every March, as well as a historian, writer, and pack rat. I figured that if anyone still had ancient articles and information regarding this subject, she would. I called her up and as it turned out, she knew everything about this subject and then some. The St. Patrick's Association had raised money to restore the statue five years ago and some of the men who partook in the theft shared their story at a fund-raising banquet. She had personal letters and a video tape of them retelling the tale. After talking to her and discovering the truths about the legend, I began to wonder about other issues in the community that would have brought about such an interest in Robert Emmet. My grandma was able to mail me photocopies of the letters St. Patrick's received and additional information about Robert Emmet and the history of Emmetsburg. What she couldn't send, I learned about though e-mail and over the telephone. The information I gained turned out to be quite humorous as well as informing.

     All of the basic information about the Robert Emmet statue turned out to be true, however, many small detail had been left out. The most useful source of information I obtained was a personal letter from one of the thieves which helped fill in those missing details of the story. His name was Don Pierce and was influential in getting the centennial going. He found a 1930 newspaper article about the history of the statue and went to St. Paul to find the location of the statue. According his letter, he spent several weeks recruiting people to help abduct the statue. The theory was that the men he recruited had to be businessmen because he felt they "...would get caught, but the publicity of being in jail would be worth a fortune." Along with Pierce, the three other men were Phil Kerber, Joe Morrow, and Jack Kelly. The reason that no one found out about them was that none of them were connected "socially or in any manner" and none of them "were the hell raising, dare devils . . . and, that is exactly why they were selected." The letter from Pierce also states how all four men were scared to death, but everything went perfect. After carrying tile statue past the owner's open bedroom window and hauling it back to Emmetsburg, they placed the figure in the middle of the intersection at Broadway and Main Street at three o'clock in the morning so everyone could view it. They went to work late that morning, but by that time, it had been moved to the courthouse and he thought that Anderson Construction had been the group to cement the statue into the base. Pierce stated that no one in the community knew all of the names of the thieves. "Every person had their own idea but in rattling off the names, they never guessed more than one...and never the same one. Many took credit for it that were not even involved." Those who did take part in the robbery chose to keep quiet as they knew the owners of the statue as well as the sheriff's department from St. Paul would be all over Emmetsburg. He commented in the letter that all of the town attorneys publicly volunteered to defend them for free if anyone found out who stole the statue. Pierce had felt that retrieving the statue would make the community more enthusiastic about the upcoming centennial and he was right. Members of the community became very involved with the celebration and it turned out to be a huge success. There is one interesting aspect to the legend that I was not able to find information on. It deals with the question of how this whole ordeal was solved. In all of the information I obtained nothing was stated regarding this issue. My grandma was not even able to provide anything solid. So, for that aspect of the story it is best to just go with the original though, that Father Farley, the Catholic priest of the community paid the St. Paul owners for the statue and settled the deal.

     All of the excitement about the statue made me begin to wonder what made Robert Emmet such a significant figure. What was it about him that four respectable men would steal a statue of him to arouse the town? In response to this question, I spend several hours on the telephone talking to my grandma and she sent me a pamphlet of background information on Robert Emmet as well as Emmetsburg. I have shared the information I learned on these subjects in the opening paragraph however, an interesting side note my grandma informed me of deals with St. Pat's Day. Every year the Ancient Order of Hibernians held the annual St. Patrick's Day celebration, but several years later, it was canceled. In March of 1961, local men were able to reestablish the celebration. As stated in the St. Patrick's Day brochure, "it was the intention of the organizers to commemorate St. Patrick's Day and develop an interest in local heritage and history." From additional information I obtained from my grandma I have learned that the St. Patrick's Day celebration has provided Emmetsburg with ah opportunity preserve some of the Irish culture and customs, as well as to "show off" the statue of Robert Emmet.

     Irish heritage is a big part of Emmetsburg and the Robert Emmet statue is an important symbol of that heritage. There is always someone willing to tell an old tale or show some old picture to prove that they, in fact, are of Irish descent. On St. Patrick's Day, hundreds of people flock to Emmetsburg to celebrate the sense of community bonding that comes from being Irish or to be Irish `just for the day." To show the communities "Irish Pride," the legend of the statue of Robert Emmet is still frequently told to entertain, amaze, and most of all, make sure it does not become just another story from some old Irishman's can of Blarney.

 

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