The Whaleman to celebrate 100th birthday in June

newsletter-108-6One hundred years ago, prominent citizen and former Congressman William W. Crapo stood outside the public library and presented the city an iconic bronze statue crafted by the famous American sculptor Bela Lyon Pratt.
“The Whaleman” still stands there today, paying tribute to the whalers who made New Bedford a famous and wealthy city that lit the world.
The inscription on the statue reads “A Dead Whale or a Stove Boat,” borrowed of course from Ahab’s cry in Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick.” It refers to the danger of working aboard a whaleship, on which a dead whale was the desired outcome of the mission but “a stove” or shipwrecked boat was just as likely.
Standing in front of a skiff poised on rocky waves, barebacked and rugged, “The Whaleman” harpooner is poised and determinedly looking ahead.
For a city that led the whaling industry in its heyday, “The Whaleman” has become a beloved icon, a testament to a proud past that residents cherish.
“I do think it’s kind of a symbol of a glorious part of our history,” said Peter Bullard, local attorney and a Crapo descendant. “When you think of whalers, the facet that exceeded their work ethic, was their courage. It was an extremely difficult way to make a living. New Bedford back in the day lit the world, and it didn’t just happen. It happened due to the tough work of the whalemen and that is something everyone should be proud of.”
At an 11 a.m. ceremony on June 20, New Bedford’s famed statue will celebrate its 100th anniversary on the same library steps where it was dedicated.
“I think that’s one of our most beautiful sculptures,” said former Mayor Scott Lang, who pointed out that whalemen were ambassadors of America during the mid-19th century, so the statue should be a matter of pride for everyone.
“The first Americans people met were whalers,” he said. “I think that every citizen can take pride in it because it really harkens back to the entrepreneurial spirit of going out and lighting the world. I find it very inspirational.”
“‘The Whaleman’ is clearly a work of its time by a major artist, and from our perspective it teaches lessons beyond its initial symbolic intent,” said James Russell, president of the Whaling Museum. “For me, it is also an inspiring example of how the museum’s first leader, William Crapo, consistently demonstrated a vision for the preservation of city history; that everything he set out to accomplish, he did with an eye on the horizon. He mentions the future as much as the past, with history as a chart of the voyage.”
Local residents say they are pleased the beloved statue will finally be celebrated.
“I am delighted they agreed to recognize ‘The Whaleman,'” said Peggi Medeiros, a local preservationist. “It was an enormously generous gift, an extraordinary good piece of sculpture, and has become the symbol of New Bedford worldwide.”
“It makes sense for a city that led the whaling industry and fostered national pride, and (it’s) a great way for the city to promote itself and its maritime heritage,” said Arthur Motta, director of marketing and communications at the Whaling Museum.
While the Whaleman statue has been locally reproduced on postcards, on souvenir plates, as Christmas ornaments, and as bookends, it’s the historic context that stands out for Janice Hodson, curator of art at the New Bedford Free Public Library, who called it “a paean to a romanticized past.”
“It’s also a public statement mythologizing a harsh industry, created after the textile industry and its immigrant laborers had dramatically changed the landscape and cultural life of New Bedford from what the descendents of the whaling masters had known,” she said.
It has great relevance for the city today, Motta pointed out. When the statue was dedicated, it was during an era of change when the whaling industry was fading fast and New Bedford was looking to capitalize on a new industry ó textiles. A hundred years later, with the city looking to capitalize on a new industry ó offshore wind ó to reap new economic benefits and lead the country in clean energy, it’s once again a time of change and hope.
“So we are closely related to the statue, looking behind at the old century and looking forward to the new one, just as we are now,” Motta said.
“‘The Whaleman’ is an iconic New Bedford statue,” said Mayor Jon Mitchell. “Over the years it has become a symbol of New Bedford and a proud reminder of our whaling history. As a work of art it is a remarkable achievement. Anyone who sees it immediately understands the tremendous courage, determination and physical strength it took to be a New Bedford whaleman.”
A hundred years ago the whaleman clearly meant just as much to Crapo.
Before the statue was dedicated, Crapo wrote a letter, dated Feb. 8, 1912, to then Mayor Charles Ashley asking him “to make arrangements for a memorial in honor of the whalemen whose skill, hardihood, and daring brought fame and fortune to New Bedford and made its name known in every seaport on the globe; and to be privileged to present it to the City of New Bedford as a tribute to the citizenship which I have so long enjoyed.”
Crapo also wrote that he had asked sculptor Bela Lyon Pratt of Boston “to design a model of a bronze figure of a boatsteerer throwing a harpoon from the bow of a whaleboat” and presented the sketch to the city. “My wish is that this memorial be placed on the ground by the Public Library,” Crapo wrote.
Ashley’s Feb. 21 response reads, “I can assure you that the proposition meets my hearty approval and must commend itself to every person as a thoughtful, generous act deserving public appreciation in the fullest measure.”
Crapo’s incredible gift to the city was dedicated June 20, 1913.
Local boatsteerer Richard Lewis McLachlan was Pratt’s model, and New Bedford’s oldest living whaling master at the time, Captain George Baker, unveiled the statue before thousands of spectators in a grand ceremony that Pratt’s descendants hope to mirror this year.
Nat C. Smith, the architect of the library, designed the granite base and drainage system for the statue and the bronze casting was done by Roman Bronze Works, according to records at the public library.
“New Bedford was an energy cartel, like an OPEC that produced the world’s first liquid fuel. So the speakers were talking as much about transportation and cotton production as they did about the statue,” Motta said of that first ceremony. “It was also a typical American elevation of manhood, celebration of the entrepreneurial spirit, seizing wealth where you can find it ó you can find all of it in ‘The Whaleman.'”
With “The Whaleman’s” history and their now famous ancestor’s artistic achievement in mind, two of Pratt’s grandchildren, Nathaniel Forbes Kennedy and Cynthia (Pratt) Kennedy Sam came up with the idea of celebrating the 100th anniversary, but could not find support.
Last year Sam connected with Medeiros after reading a letter the latter wrote about the statue in The Standard-Times. They joined forces, contacted local supporters and were delighted to recently find backing from the city.
“I’m very pleased that everyone ó the Whaling Museum, the library, the mayor ó seems to be on the same page about the importance of honoring this sculpture,” said Sam. “This particular one is very special to me because (Pratt) loved the ocean and it really reflects that.”
“I look forward to joining with the community and the sculptor’s family at the centennial celebration in June,” Mitchell said.
In addition to Pratt’s four grandchildren, several of his great grandchildren are also planning to visit from all over the country for a ceremony that is close to their hearts.
“I am so excited to celebrate this important New Bedford landmark and public artwork to honor New Bedford’s heritage and the work of my great grandfather,” said Amy Laugesen, a sculptor from Colorado.
“I did not know my grandfather personally, but his works have so inspired me. I especially love the statue in New Bedford,” said Elisabeth Kennedy Laugesen, Amy’s mother, who shared a personal story about coming to see “The Whaleman.”
“I was on a tour of New England by Tauck Tours and went to New Bedford. My 10 minutes of fame came when I became the granddaughter of the sculptor of the Whaleman!” she said in an email.
Sam’s son, Oen Kennedy, is a musician and he wondered what life would be without art or his great grandfather’s weighty influence. He said he hopes to write some music to present at the ceremony in June.
“My great grandfather Bela’s love of nature, beauty, and music has been an inspiration to me throughout my life,” he said. “We’ve had some of his smaller sculptures within arms’ reach most of our lives, and being in contact with them has given me something to strive for in my own creative undertakings as I attempt to bring things of beauty into the world.”
The family is also busy with two other upcoming 100th year celebrations of Pratt’s works this year ó “The Schoolboy of 1850” at Ashburnham and a bust of Michael Anagnos at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown.
Pratt was born in Norwich, Conn. and, according to his official website, created his first sculptures out of beeswax pilfered from his grandmother’s sewing basket at the age of 5. He created 180 pieces of art in his 49 years. He died of a heart attack on May 18, 1917.
“The Whaleman” cost Pratt $25,000 to produce and is now worth about half a million, according to estimates on the artist’s website maintained by the family
By Auditi Guha
March 24, 2013 12:00 AM
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