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Idaho group honors Mount Rushmore sculptor, Ku Klux Klan member

BOISE — A private group that drew attention in 2007 by naming Republican Sen. Larry Craig to its "Idaho's Hall of Fame" list amid furor over his sex-sting arrest has elevated Mount Rushmore sculptor and one-time Ku Klux Klan member Gutzon Borglum to its 2010 class of honorees.

Borglum, born in Idaho Territory in 1867, chiseled the monumental heads of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt in the granite of South Dakota's Black Hills.

In the mid-1920s, Borglum was also in the Klan.

Some historians speculate that Borglum, by most accounts a complex, ambitious and difficult figure, joined the KKK to secure financing for a Confederate monument at Georgia's Stone Mountain that he never completed. Others say he was a "prairie populist" with anti-Semitic tendencies who hoped the KKK would help advance his political aspirations.

Dallas Cox, Idaho Hall of Fame president, said she knew only that Borglum was the man whose labors in South Dakota today draw two million visitors annually.

Borglum was chosen by the group's volunteer board of directors, including Idaho state controller Donna Jones, as part of its effort to honor people from all 44 Idaho counties. Cox said Bear Lake County, where Borglum was born to Mormon pioneers, wasn't yet represented.

"Oh, my gosh. You're kidding," Cox told The Associated Press upon learning of Borglum's KKK ties. "Well, I'll bet if we sat down and took every one of the inductees since 1995, you could find something on every one of them. That's not our goal. It's to be able to recognize the person for their accomplishments."

In October 2007, Cox's nonprofit group, which isn't affiliated with Idaho state government, drew attention when it added Craig amid his arrest and guilty plea in Minnesota.

Naming Borglum this year — with 23 others, including Olympic gold medal-winning cyclist Kristin Armstrong and writer Ernest Hemingway, whose association with Sun Valley, Idaho, ended with his suicide there in 1961 — likely won't draw the frenzy that accompanied Craig.

Still, honoring a former Ku Klux Klan member in Idaho, until 2001 home to the Aryan Nations white supremacist group, might raise a few eyebrows.

Borglum's past has raised those on occasion in Keystone, S.D., site of the Gutzon Borglum Historical Center, a private museum where picketers marched in 2003 with anti-Klan signs.

"The police asked them to move out to the sidewalk," said Laura Jones, the museum manager.

Howard and Audrey Shaff, the museum's historians, detailed Borglum's Klan ties in "Six Wars at a Time," their 1985 book about the artist, including a passage highlighting his attendance at a Klan strategy meeting in 1923 in Washington, D.C., and friendship with Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson, a convicted murderer.

The Shaffs, who didn't return an e-mail, also wrote that Borglum's immediate concern during the 1920s was securing several million dollars he needed for the Confederate monument at Stone Mountain near Atlanta. It was commissioned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy — "and the KKK was offering to help raise the money," the Shaffs wrote.

"There was much about the KKK that appealed to him and much he did not like, but above all he saw a malleable organization that could be turned into a powerful political force strong enough to make national policy," they wrote.

Navnit Singh, a Mount Rushmore National Memorial spokesman, didn't immediately return a phone call.

But employees at the visitors center who weren't authorized to speak publicly said they get queries about Borglum's Ku Klux Klan ties only "once in a blue moon."

Martin Luschei, professor emeritus of English at Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo, Calif., who wrote about Borglum in his 2007 book, "The Black Hills and the Indians," concluded the sculptor was a man of contradictions — an anti-Semite with powerful Jewish friends, a former Klan member who blasted Adolf Hitler after the Nazi leader came to power in the 1930s.

"Borglum denounced Hitler, to the point where Hitler destroyed a statute of Borglum's (of Woodrow Wilson) in Poland," Luschei told the AP.

"You can't categorize him simply," Luschei said. "He also had this political power drive. He was sort of a 'prairie populist.' He thought the Jews were controlling the situation, and I think he thought the Klan would give him power that he might even have been able to use to get to the presidency."

According to his own 1921 account, John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum was born "west of Bear Lake, up in the mountains," the son of the second of two sisters who married a Danish Mormon wood carver. He was still a child when his family departed Idaho Territory, first for Utah, then Nebraska.

His education included studying with sculptor Auguste Rodin in Paris; some of his works were displayed at Windsor Castle for Queen Victoria, according to a National Park Service that mentions his successes, though not his KKK ties.

Borglum's 1908 rough-cut marble bust of Abraham Lincoln is now in the U.S. Capitol crypt.

Though he never finished the monument of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis on Georgia's Stone Mountain where he joined the Klan, historians say that experience eventually resulted in Borglum winning the job at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota starting in 1927.

That project was only partially completed when he died in 1941 in Chicago.

Cox, of the Idaho Hall of Fame, says knowing Borglum was once in the KKK doesn't sway her from adding his name to her group's list of notable Idahoans.

"We can focus on the negative all day," she said. "As far as I'm concerned, we're focusing on the accomplishments."