Mother Figure To Whistler, Then Ashland And The World

Posted: May 09, 1987

ASHLAND, Pa. — She gazes westward, hands primly clasped in her lap, her face a study in serenity and wisdom.

True, she is eight feet tall, 1,200 pounds and green, but still she is unmistakable and cherished - Mom.

Technically speaking, she's artist James Whistler's mother, transformed

from the familiar painting to a bronze statue in a small park. But really she is universal.

"A mother is the holiest thing alive," reads the inscription at the base of this sleepy former coal town's monument to motherhood.

The Mothers Memorial, as it is known here, has its origins in Ashland's history as a small town wedded to a grimy, and now faded, industry.

That is a polite way of saying that a lot of people have turned their backs on Ashland over the years in search of a different life, or just a job.

But they returned, too, by the hundreds, once a year for a Labor Day celebration that originated around the turn of the century and halted only a decade ago.

They called themselves the Ashland Boys Association.

Now these boys of Ashland brooked no women at their liquor-laden get- togethers, but they all had mothers and at their 1937 reunion the fellows decided something should be done to honor them.

They settled on a statue of the best-known mother they could find. Whistler's work, painted in 1872, is formally known as Arrangement in Gray and Black #1, but everyone knew it was his mother.

The town raised $8,000 for the statue and lined up labor from the Depression-era Works Progress Administration to do the stonemasonry for the walls that mark the walkway and boundaries.

The summer of 1938 being a dry one, the town dyed the scorched grass green, and in September dedicated a small, lovely hillside park over which presides Whistler's Mother.

Oxidized over the years to a soft green color, she gazes up Chestnut Street, oblivious to the occasional beer bottle lying beneath her. She is enhanced by clumps of tulips growing below her.

"A memorial to the mothers of Ashland boys and girls," reads another inscription carved into her marble base.

Even on Mother's Day, however, the statue is something less than a mecca for the mother-minded. The truth is, the citizens of Ashland take Mother, as it is familiarly called, a bit for granted.

"It's a matter of town pride, but accepted," said Harry Strouse, who at age 74 can recall the day the statue was eased down wooden ramps and raised onto the pedestal.

"It's always been there. It doesn't attract many tourists, although once in a great while you see someone stop with a camera."

Gayle Loftus, who lives next to the statue and small park, also wonders what the fuss could possibly be about, especially on mornings like the recent one when she was awakened by two carloads of Korean tourists clambering up the stone steps to the statue.

"I sometimes think, 'Why do people come to see this?' " said Loftus, who lives just east of the west-facing figure. "Of course, from my place all you see is the back of her head."

Said Frederick T. Kull, 69, "We walk by it. We don't pay homage to it."

There is almost nobody left in Ashland who participated in the decision to bring Whistler's Mother to town. More typical are people such as Kull and Strouse, who know what they know more by collective assumption than actual recall.

Kull illustrated the problem of finding witnesses when he unfurled a wide photograph of the 1947 Boys Association gathering. He sighed.

"A lot of customers there," said his friend, former borough manager Emil Ermert, gazing at the hundreds of faces. Kull sighed again.

Until he retired, Kull was an undertaker. His customers can be found in the cemetery at the top of this hillside Schuylkill County town.

Kull's clients may be gone, but he takes heart from the grandchildren who are brought to visit the town their fathers left.

"The grandchildren say they want to see Mother," he chuckled. "When our children come back and bring their children, they want to see it."

Beyond adorning a few postcards, the statue never has been promoted much. This is not a slick place, as the sign welcoming visitors attests. It is a ''happy face" with the words "Welcome Ashland Area."

There is a coal-mine tour here called Pioneer Tunnel, which does a good summer trade, and Ashland is what you drive through if you want to see the remains of Centralia, two miles to the north, which has been devastated by a slow underground coal fire.

Still, Mother has her moments.

"I can see the statue from my house," said Strouse. "On a snowy night with a spotlight on the memorial it is, if I may say, an awesome sight."

Listening to Strouse, Kull was searching his memory.

"What's the word?" he said. Then he found it. "Serenity," he said.

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