Until this month, the lives of only six nonmythological women were commemorated with public sculptures in Minnesota. Now, there’s a seventh. Meet Mary Whitney, who has returned to Marshall in bronze some 130 years after she left it in the flesh.
She’s back to be remembered for giving the city something important — its name.
In July 1872, Mary Wirt Whitney, her husband, Charles, and three daughters (a fourth would come later) were in southwestern Minnesota to operate a rural post office that took the name of the governor in office when it was established, William Marshall. A tiny, nameless village clustered around the post office, populated in part by people expecting a boom as soon as a railroad line reached the place.
Late one hot afternoon, a breathless rider came with word that a large group of important railroad men were on their way from Lamberton, 30 miles to the southeast. They were coming to make important decisions and were hoping to be served dinner.
Mary Whitney got busy, opening her family’s larder and seeking donations from her neighbors. The meal she hastily prepared was “fit for princes,” according to a contemporary account.
While serving dinner, she heard the men planning a railroad station for the village and debating which of them should put his name on it, and hence on the town that would spring up around it. The men asked her opinion on the matter. She allowed that she favored the name on her husband’s post office. It was that of a governor who had been a military hero during the Civil War and a champion for African-American suffrage while in office. The railroad men agreed, and reportedly conducted an impromptu “baptism,” pouring water on the ground to name Marshall.
In sculptor John Sterner’s rendering, Mary Whitney is tossing water outside. It might represent an act of community baptism. But she also might be a rural Everywoman doing the daily chores that, over time, brought permanent settlement and prosperity to the state’s southwestern prairie.
Whitney is back because, to their credit, today’s leaders in Marshall value the previously overlooked contributions of women to Minnesota’s settlement. She’s also back because Minnesotans care enough about both history and art to tax themselves for those purposes, via the 2008 Legacy Amendment. The Whitney statue should inspire leaders in other Minnesota cities to ask which of their unsung pioneers is worthy to be remembered.