Polk County’s Doughboy, Part 1: One of a Kind

Published 10:00 pm Friday, June 16, 2017

Editor’s Note: This is the 11th installment of a series of articles about Polk County veterans of WWI whose names are listed on the Doughboy Monument in Columbus.

There is no known account, record, or marking that tells us who created Polk County’s iconic “doughboy,” the World War I soldier who has stood watch over the town of Columbus and the courthouse square for 92 years. But available evidence suggests that the statue was individually crafted, probably in Italy.

“Doughboy” is a term of uncertain origin that can be traced back as far as the Mexican-American War of the 1840s. The nickname, once a term of derision, became affectionately attached to the U.S. infantrymen who served in World War I. 

Polk County’s one of a kind Doughboy

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More than a year after the end of the conflict, on September 26, 1919, the Polk County News reported the formation of a “Soldiers Memorial Association” to erect a monument in appreciation for the young men of the county who had given “valorous service during the perilous days of the war.”

Officers of the association were President Thomas Mills of Tryon, Vice President E. W. S. Cobb of Columbus, and Secretary-Treasurer William Alberry “W. A.” Cannon of Lynn.  Association membership was open to “…every white man or woman, boy or girl, with a spark of patriotism.”  The exclusion of patriotic African American citizens, even veterans of the war, was likely the result of the “Jim Crow” laws of the time that mandated segregation of the races in all “public facilities.”

The monument was completed in 10 months, to allow for an unveiling on the Fourth of July, 1920.

Soon after the conclusion of World War I towns and counties scrambled to erect suitable monuments.  Sculptor and entrepreneur Ernest Moore “E. M.” Viquesney of Americus, Georgia aggressively met the demand with a mass-produced and marketed off-the-shelf memorial statue called “The Spirit of the American Doughboy.” 

Viquesney claimed to have placed “over 300” of his works across the country during the 1920s and 30s, almost all of them made of pressed copper, like the Statue of Liberty. 

Viquesney’s doughboy appears in meticulously accurate U.S. Army uniform, steel helmet, and battle gear.  He’s on the attack, striding triumphantly forward through the debris of “no man’s land.”  In his left hand he carries a rifle with fixed bayonet, while his right arm extends upward with a grenade in his clenched fist.  In addition to the full-size version, Viquesney sold miniatures, incense burners, and art lamps “complete with shade.”

Polk County’s memorial association could have easily obtained the popular, metallic “…Spirit of the American Doughboy,” but did not join the Viquesney bandwagon, perhaps because of the stated intent to erect an “artistic and dignified monument” in the county seat.  They opted for a hand-made marble one-of-a-kind, that would be well received, if less than perfect.

The much less common marble doughboys were individually created “from scratch,” so no two are alike.  But a doughboy statue that is very similar to Polk County’s soldier stands in High Point, N.C., and its origin is better known.  That statue was dedicated in 1923 amid complaints by veterans that the details of his uniform were of questionable authenticity, with scrutiny focused on the poor representation of his army service hat. 

According to an article in the High Point Enterprise, the donor explained that their doughboy was commissioned through a Baltimore agency, with the work to be done in Italy, and they had trusted in the delivery of an accurate representation. The same can likely be said of the Polk County doughboy.

“Our” soldier appears to be carved from solid white Italian “Carrara” marble, and is equipped with a generic European style canteen rather than the distinct U.S. Model 1910. For rations and personal items he carries a haversack slung from the shoulder in an a pattern that was obsolete for U.S. infantrymen. His broad-brimmed hat is more in keeping with a side-dented civilian fedora than the well known U.S. Model 1911 “Montana peaked” service (or “campaign”) hat, the style still worn today by drill instructors. He has those three items of improper equipment in common with his High Point brother, and both are stabilized by a tree stump against the back of the leg.

The Polk County soldier is correctly armed with a U.S. Model 1903 Springfield rifle, his bayonet and trench knife in their scabbards. His hip-length service coat and bloused breeches are also close approximations. 

Unlike Viquesney’s “action figure,” the life-size Polk County and High Point doughboys are in relaxed and peaceful, but watchful postures.  The Columbus statue stands at “parade rest,” a formal rest position assumed by soldiers in formation that requires silence and stillness. His hands clutch the muzzle of his rifle, its butt resting on the ground. The soldier faces to the northwest, toward Tryon Mountain and White Oak, with his gaze fixed downward toward the middle of the highway to his front.

He stands tall atop a pedestal made of local field and river stones that includes two engraved plaques. One lists the names of seven local men who were casualties of World War I. The other recognizes “…the untiring effort and patriotic devotion of W. A. Cannon…by his friends.”  Secretary-Treasurer Cannon, a Columbus store keeper, seems to have taken the lead in the campaign to erect the memorial, tirelessly organizing the “school children and patriotic citizens of the county.”

The words on the Doughboy Monument also dedicate the highway that it faces to the memory of the war dead.  North Carolina’s Highway Act of 1921 mandated the construction of a system of paved and numbered highways to connect all county seats and principal towns in the state. One of those 18-foot-wide concrete roadways was numbered “108,” and still connects Rutherfordton to Tryon, by way of Columbus and its watchful doughboy.

Contrary to plans, Polk County’s Doughboy Monument was not unveiled on the Fourth of July, 1920.  Five years would pass before Columbus, “gay with bunting” of red, white, and blue, would “ring” with band music and oratory.

– article submitted by Alan Leonard