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Potential of moving WW I statue stirs controversy, ‘heavy feelings’ in Kentucky town

A statue in downtown Monticello, Kentucky, honors those who served in World War I. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader/TNS)

The potential relocation of a more than 100 year old World War I doughboy statue from a busy intersection in downtown Monticello, Kentucky, is giving local residents and elected officials considerable heartburn.

Although it’s not clear if or when the move would happen, two magistrates said hundreds of residents have told them they don’t want the doughboy moved, and the commander of a veterans group said some members have talked of starting a petition against moving it.

Magistrates Jeff Dishman and Jonathan Dobbs said they would favor fighting in court to keep the statue in place if it comes to that.

“It’s an iconic figure that’s been there for a hundred years in the middle of our downtown,” Dobbs said.

The potential for the doughboy — the nickname for American soldiers in the war — to be moved came up as part of a project to improve a section of east KY 92 near downtown, where it is called Michigan Avenue.

The road intersects Main Street at a right angle, making it difficult for large trucks to make the tight, 90-degree turn.

Trucks have hit a bank and a drug store on the corners of Michigan Avenue where it meets Main Street, said state Rep. Ken Upchurch.

“It’s increasingly become a problem,” said Upchurch, a Republican from Monticello who chairs the House budget subcommittee on transportation. He has pushed the project to realign KY 92 in order to improve traffic flow.

The doughboy statue is a block away from the Main Street-Michigan Avenue intersection, but fixing the problem would involve re-routing Michigan Avenue to enter Main Street where the statue sits.

It’s not set in stone that the project will require moving the statue, local and state officials said.

The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet is developing and evaluating several alternatives, and has not chosen a design for the project, said spokeswoman Amber Hale.

The cabinet “is working with the community to find an acceptable solution,” Hale said.

The options for moving the statue include putting it in front of the nearby judicial center, where there are other war memorials; putting it in a corner of the square near where it is now; or moving it to a vacant lot less than a block away on Main Street, next to the county courthouse.

That lot was left open after a fire destroyed a building.

The Downtown Monticello Foundation bought the lot and cleaned it up as part of its effort to beautify downtown, said Rhett Ramsey, an attorney and member of the foundation board.

Honoring soldiers

Residents of Monticello and Wayne County started considering a way to honor local World War I soldiers not long after Allied forces, including the U.S., signed an armistice with Germany to halt fighting on Nov. 11, 1918, according to a book by the late Harlan Ogle, a local minister and historian.

A committee ultimately chose a plan to put a statue of a doughboy on a granite pedestal in a small park in the middle of town, with a plaque containing the names of local soldiers.

There were 10 soldiers from Wayne County killed in combat. Another 13 died during the war from illness or other causes, and 45 were wounded.

Rose Shearer, mother of Lee Shearer, the first Wayne County soldier killed in the war, turned the first shovel of dirt for the memorial in November 1922, according to Ogle’s book, which relied in large part on articles from the local newspaper, the Wayne County Outlook.

Week by week, the local paper chronicled efforts by the American Legion, local businesses, the Women’s Club and school children to raise $2,000 in donations to pay for the statue and base, according to Ogle’s book.

“Every red blooded citizen of Wayne County should contribute something. If they do not, they can never really look at this statue without their conscience saying, they stuck by you, but you failed them,” one fundraising appeal in the newspaper said.

An estimated 3,500 people crowded the dedication of the memorial on April 8, 1923, a cold, windy Sunday, Ogle wrote.

The statue chosen was a design called “The Spirit of the American Doughboy,” made from bronze and depicting a soldier carrying a rifle and moving forward, his right arm raised to throw a grenade.

E.M. Viquesney, an artist and sculptor from Indiana, copyrighted the design after the war and marketed it across the country.

Tour of Honor, which promotes motorcycle rides to war memorials around the country to honor veterans and raise money for charity, includes 12 WWI doughboy statues in Kentucky in its database.

Of those, eight are the Viquesney design. The others are in Grayson, Harlan, Jamestown, Liberty, Morehead, Pikeville and Winchester, according to Tour of Honor.

The organization says there are doughboy statues of other designs in West Liberty, Paducah, Paintsville and Springfield.

The marble statue in West Liberty was shattered when a tornado with winds of 140 miles per hours hit the city in March 2012.

Sculptors reassembled the pieces and put the statue back in place.

‘Centerpiece of our community’

The size of the plaza around the Monticello doughboy was previously reduced to accommodate traffic flow, but veterans and others have fought prior efforts to move it out of the central square.

A group sued in 1976 after the city council approved a resolution to move the statue, according to court records Dishman and Dobbs provided.

Judge Leonard E. Wilson noted the city was “confronted with traffic problems,” but ruled that the spot where the doughboy stands — which had been the site of county courthouses in the early 1800s — was owned by the county.

Wilson barred the city from moving it.

Jeff Morgan, commander of the local chapter of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), said the organization has not taken a position on moving the doughboy during the current iteration of the issue.

He thinks most members would favor leaving the statue in place, however, and some have talked of starting a petition against moving the statue.

Morgan said he can see pros and cons to moving the statue, but personally would like to see it stay in the square. One concern is that it could be damaged during a move, he said.

But Upchurch said it’s hard for people to visit the doughboy because it is in the middle of a busy intesection, and it creates an impediment to traffic flow.

“You just can’t have a highway system that has something like that in the middle of it,” Upchurch said.

Leaving the doughboy in the intersection creates a risk it will be hit by a car or truck, Upchurch said.

A similar Viquesney doughboy statue in the center of Jamestown, in adjoining Russell County, was hit by an alleged drunk driver in 2008 and knocked off its pedestal. It was badly damaged and replaced with a duplicate.

Upchurch said he would favor moving the Monticello statue if it could be in a place of prominence where people could visit it more easily and pay their respects.

“It’s a way to preserve and teach history,” he said.

Upchurch said most of the people he has heard from about the issue favor moving the doughboy out of the intersection.

However, Dobbs and Dishman said among the people who have contacted them, sentiment against moving the doughboy is overwhelming.

“I’ve had no positive comments about moving the doughboy,” Dobbs said.

The issue “blew up” after Upchurch met with the DAV earlier this summer and discussed options for moving the statue, Dishman said.

Dishman has heard more complaints about potentially moving the statue than he’s heard on any issue in his nearly 15 years on fiscal court, including a 2020 vote on legalizing alcohol sales, he said.

Dishman and Dobbs said they support the project to realign Michigan Avenue, but don’t want to see the doughboy statue moved.

“That’s the centerpiece of our community,” Dishman said.

Opponents of moving the statue also argue it is not a significant problem in traffic flow.

County Attorney Tom Simmons said there are “heavy feelings” on both sides of the issue.

“Hopefully we can just work this out and make everyone satisfied,” he said.


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