This article originally appeared in Volume I, Issue I of StoryBoard Memphis Quarterly in November 2021.
Looking out over the Central and East Parkway intersection, tucked back on a small rise, stands an eight and half-foot tall infantry soldier. He has a Krag–Jørgensen rifle in hand and a low-slung ammunition belt around his waist and wears a campaign hat and combat uniform. A plaque on the statue’s granite base announces that he is there to commemorate the volunteer soldiers who fought in the Spanish-American War (1898), a conflict few Americans mention outside of high school history classes.
He is called The Hiker. Why is he there?
War memorials commemorate events that occurred, battles won and lost, lives saved, and lives lost. They are the ways people in a specific moment want to remember the past. They are complicated, and they speak in layers.
On April 25, 1898, Congress passed an act of war against Spain, beginning America’s short and “splendid little war,” as declared by Secretary of State John Hay. Triggered by an explosion aboard the USS Maine off the coast of Cuba, where Spain was engaged in a long war with Cuban independence fighters, the ten-week war, fought in Cuba and the Philippines, was brief and decisive.
America’s completely volunteer army quickly engaged in conflicts designed to create an American empire abroad, which many (though by no means all) people believed was a logical next step for the country. American soldiers nicknamed themselves “hikers” because their campaigns often involved long marches over difficult terrain.
This short conflict provided America, a former colony, with colonies of its own. Puerto Rico and Guam became the next subjects of America’s Manifest Destiny. The war also established Theodore Roosevelt as a viable political candidate and created over 280,000 veterans.
The treaty ending the war also allowed the U.S. to annex the Philippines, establishing colonial rule. This decision led to a three year war between American troops and Filipino nationalists. The United States lost over 4,200 soldiers, and the brutal conflict resulted in the deaths of over 20,000 Filipino combatants and as many as 200,000 civilians from the resulting fighting, famine, and disease.
Veterans of both these conflicts, along with veterans of the Boxer Rebellion (1900-1901), combined their fraternal organizations to create the United Spanish War Veterans (USWV). Their organization’s seal on The Hiker’s base refers to Puerto Rico as Porto Rico, an anglicanized spelling imposed by the United States after the Spanish-American War and used by the federal government until 1931.
Prior to the Spanish-American War, 14-year-old Fred Bauer Sr. left his home in St. Louis and moved in with the soldiers at Jefferson Barracks. By his own account, Bauer stowed away with the Third Calvary when they deployed for Cuba. Army officials discovered him in Huntsville, Alabama, and sent him back to Missouri where he again stowed away, this time with the 16th Infantry. He made it to the Philippines where he became an enlisted American soldier at 15, assigned to be chief musician (trumpeter). His discharge came in 1903 at the age of 18, and Bauer made his way to Memphis in 1917, where he opened a successful auto shop.
Sculptor Theodora Alice Ruggles Kitson (1871-1932), known professionally as Theo Ruggles Kitson, created the original The Hiker statue for the University of Minnesota in 1906. A prolific artist, Kitson was the first woman admitted to the National Sculpture Society. Her work earned praise for his realism and historical accuracy. In 1921, she sold the rights to the statue to the Gortham Manufacturing Company in Rhode Island. Over the next 44 years, Gortham cast at least 52 copies of the statue, which are installed in parks and cemeteries around the country.
Back in Memphis, Bauer threw himself into the civic life of his adopted city. For decades, he backed a soccer team and sports leagues and chaired the City Board of Equalization. He also spent a lot of time volunteering with the USWV, serving at national, state, and local levels. Under his leadership, the association began raising money for The Hiker in 1935. After over 25 years of fundraising, which coincided with the Great Depression, WWII, and the Korean War, Bauer himself donated about half of the needed funds to finally purchase the statue.
Memphis’s USWV camp lobbied to place the statue in an unused parcel of land that had previously belonged to the Union Pacific Railroad across the street from Fairview School. Memphis Parks Commissioner Harry Pierotti oversaw the dedication of the new Spanish War Memorial Park with its bronze sculpture in December 1956, half a century after the war, and towards the end of The Hiker’s conquest of American public spaces.
At the time of its unveiling, eighty-two Spanish-American War veterans, with an average age of 80, were living in Memphis. A year after installation, the park had yet to be landscaped. Bauer urged the park commissioners to get to it, reminding the city, “Spanish-American War vets are dying out at the rate of 5,000 a year. Some of our boys may be next–and they want to see the monument completed before they go.”
An Air Quality Marker
In 2009, another layer of interpretation was added atop the rest. Scientists used the 37 Hiker statues that had never received conservation work to study air pollution over the last half century. As corrosion monitors go, The Hikers are appealing subjects because of their consistent alloy chemistry, wide geographic distribution across almost every climate zone in the continental United States, and their long periods of exposure. The scientists found that all the statues experienced pollution levels that rose and fell dramatically, with highs in the 1930s and 1950s that dropped substantially after the 1970 Clean Air Act.
All in One
The Hiker is not among the headline-grabbing monuments being reexamined in light of contemporary interpretations of the past. It stands, largely unnoticed, in a small park at a busy intersection.
How should we interpret it today?
A work by a renowned female sculptor at a time when few women were in that profession. A reminder of imperialism and colonial rule. A memorial to the volunteerism and patriotism of soldiers. A marker of environmental conditions. One veteran’s personal mission of remembrance.
It can be all of these. The Hiker, like all memorials, is held within these tensions.
Caroline Mitchell Carrico is a native Memphian and the Manager of Programs and Associate Editor at StoryBoard Memphis. She enjoys researching the city’s past and pulling it into the present. When she isn’t reading and writing, she can often be found cheering on her kids’ soccer teams.