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Hiawatha’s John Davis spent thousands on memorial to wife, marriage

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, March 24, 2013, at 11:59 p.m.

Ad Astra

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating the state’s history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, “Ad astra per aspera: To the stars through difficulties.”

There was a time when John Milburn Davis was one of the most hated men in Kansas.

He had money.

Squandered it, some said.

And, at a time when his state and nation were reeling from the blows of the Great Depression.

He used his fortune to build a memorial to the many phases of love he and his wife, Sarah, experienced in more than five decades of mariage.

Davis was born in Kentucky on Jan. 18, 1855.

When he was 23, he moved to Brown County, near Hiawatha in northeast Kansas. It was 1878.

He met a woman. Her name was Sarah Hart, the daughter of his employer — and, he married her.

The Hart family did not approve.

For the first three decades of their marriage, they farmed 260 acres of land. Sarah Hart Davis inherited 120 acres from her family. The Davises worked hard and scrimped. They made do. They saved.

There were no children to pass on any type of legacy or inheritance.

The Davises went through hardships and struggles as they aged. One time, hedge clippings he was burning leapt out of control and burned his beard. Another time, he badly cut his hand with a scythe. Infection set in. And, his left hand was eventually amputated. Those incidents would later be reflected in his memorial.

In 1915, when the couple was in their 60s, they retired and moved into Hiawatha. Their favorite pastime in old age was sitting on their porch chairs and watching people pass by.

By then, the Davises had grown wealthy.

And then, in 1930, Sarah Davis died.

Her grief-stricken husband began building a monument, spending an estimated $200,000 in Depression-era dollars to depict their life together: as a young couple; and, as they aged.

A Wichita Eagle clipping from the 1970s indicates “Estimates of the memorial cost range from a conservative $50,000 to more than $1 million, but they are sheer guesswork. A man, who knows but declined use of his name, isn’t talking because, as he said, ‘John didn’t think that was anyone’s business.’ ”

He commissioned life-sized Italian marble statues to be placed in Hiawatha’s Mount Hope Cemetery. All told, there are 11 marble or granite statues. There is a winged angel in Sarah’s likeness. One includes the couple sitting in their chairs side by side; another, a solitary old John Davis sits next to an empty chair. The memorial is ringed by a 4-foot stone wall with a request, “Kindly Keep off the Memorial.”

Davis chose marble in depicting Sarah’s features; granite for his own likeness.

At the time, some of the townspeople were outspoken: Why couldn’t he have spent the money on a community pool, a hospital or anything that would have benefited the living? Famed Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ernie Pyle heard about the monument and would interview Davis in the late 1930s.

Davis would reportedly tell Pyle, “It’s my money and I spent it the way I please.”

In 1947, John Davis died.

He’d outlived his fortune.

And, by then, the Davis Memorial had become one of the largest tourism draws for Hiawatha. It still is.

In 2008, it was nominated as one of the 24 finalists in the Eight Wonders of Kansas conducted by the Kansas Sampler Foundation.

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com.

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