A Place in Time spotlights a significant cultural resource - a district, site, building, structure or object - entered in the National Register of Historic Places.
Mothers' Memorial, Ashland. Photo, PHMC

Mothers’ Memorial, Ashland. Photo, PHMC

In the late 1800s Ashland and the surrounding area began experiencing a long and steady decline in employment, resulting in the departure of many men in search of jobs elsewhere. In 1901 a small group of remaining and former residents hit upon the idea of hosting an annual reunion where they could reconnect with old friends, the boys of their childhood. This group evolved into the Ashland Boys Association, which coordinated an annual Labor Day reunion for decades. Within just a few years, the reunion was drawing hundreds of attendees and an informal parade was added to the event.

The reunion’s call to “come on home” was sent to former residents across the country, and chapters of the Ashland Boys Association were organized in Philadelphia and other places. By 1935 members were considering ways to combine their desire to honor their homeplace with the newly established Works Progress Administration (WPA), a federal New Deal program intended to boost employment and local economies.

Mothers’ Memorial overlooks Ashland from the top of Hoffman Boulevard. Photo, PHMC

Mothers’ Memorial overlooks Ashland from the top of Hoffman Boulevard.
Photo, PHMC

Dr. John L. Hoffman, president of both the Ashland Boys Association and the Ashland Borough Council, developed a proposal for a memorial featuring a statue inspired by the iconic 1871 James McNeill Whistler painting of a seated woman, Arrangement in Gray and Black, No.1: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (more commonly known as “Whistler’s Mother”). The painting had been on tour recently in major American cities and received extensive press coverage, and the image had been the basis for a 1934 U.S. postage stamp celebrating Mother’s Day. For Hoffman, Whistler’s mother was the perfect symbol for the organization; in their memorial, she would become every mother of Ashland, waiting patiently for her boys to return home.

Ashland’s borough manager, Harold Burmeister, drew up the plans for the Mothers’ Memorial with help from another Ashland resident, John Maley, and the Ashland Boys Association voted in favor of the proposal at their 1937 reunion. The WPA added it to their project list later that year. The borough provided the land for the memorial, the WPA would supply the labor to terrace the steep site and complete the landscaping and stonework, and the Ashland Boys Association would raise the money to pay for the statue.

New York City artist Emil Siebern designed the statue, and fellow New Yorker Julius Loester, who specialized in bronze work, sculpted the 7-foot-high piece, which sits on a 4-foot granite base in the center of the site. The inscription chosen for the statue’s base was inspired by a Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem and reads “A MOTHER IS THE HOLIEST THING ALIVE.” The memorial was dedicated on September 4, 1938, before an estimated 2,500 people. WPA selected the Mothers’ Memorial as their outstanding Pennsylvania project for 1938.

Crowds fill the streets for the Mothers’ Memorial dedication on Sunday afternoon, September 4, 1938. Courtesy of Adam J. Bernodin III and Barbara Sage and Family

Crowds fill the streets for the Mothers’ Memorial dedication on Sunday afternoon, September 4, 1938.
Courtesy of Adam J. Bernodin III and Barbara Sage and Family

WPA focused on civic and community projects, such as post offices, courthouses, reservoirs, stadiums and bandshells. At the time the Mothers’ Memorial was approved in 1937, WPA was already active in Ashland with street improvement projects and contributing to the creation of the Willow, Higher Ups and Eureka parks. Ashland projects grew to include the Veterans’ Memorial and Hoffman Memorial, the traffic islands in the center of Hoffman Boulevard, and the pump house for the town’s water supply. By 1941 WPA had employed as many as 83 men for various Ashland projects, including the Mothers’ Memorial. Most WPA projects were directed by local interests, and many featured native materials integrated with the natural landscape.

The Ashland Boys Association reunions continued until 1976. A community-wide mummers parade, an offshoot of the reunion, continued several decades longer. Although those popular community events have ended, the Mothers’ Memorial remains a physically — and sentimentally — prominent piece of the Ashland streetscape.

 

Recent listings in the National Register of Historic Places include Ebensburg Historic District, Cambria County; The Grotto, Our Lady of Lourdes Shrine, Nesquehoning, Carbon County; Highland Park, Pittsburgh, Allegheny County; Stoehr and Fister Building, Scranton, Lackawanna County; Wilkes-Barre Silk Company Mill, Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County.

 

April E. Frantz is a historic preservation specialist who reviews National Register nominations in PHMC’s State Historic Preservation Office.