Historic Davis Memorial in Hiawatha, Kansas

The south view of The Davis Memorial in Hiawatha, Kansas.
The south view of The Davis Memorial in Hiawatha, Kansas. | Source

The Davis Memorial has been a great curiosity in Hiawatha, Kansas since its creation in the early 1900s. Exactly why John Milburn Davis commissioned the memorial is a point of controversy among historians and storytellers. John Davis and his wife, Sarah, are immortalized in large white marble and granite statues, and there are numerous statues of each depicted at various stages in their lives. At home in Mount Hope Cemetary in Hiawatha, Kansas, The Davis Memorial is an interesting historical site to visit due to its size and the nature of the elegant sculptures it features.

John Milburn Davis, creator of The Davis Memorial
John Milburn Davis, creator of The Davis Memorial | Source

Who Was John Milburn Davis?

A native of Kentucky, John Milburn Davis moved to Hiawatha, Kansas in 1878. He married his wife, Sarah, in 1880, and they settled on a 260 acre farm north of town. The couple never had children and from all accounts did not socialize with other townspeople.

John Davis is said to have been a selfish and ill-tempered man. Most people of the time considered him a wealthy man and wanted him to use his wealth for the good of the community. They wanted him to invest in a high school or hospital for the town. To their dismay Davis began creating his memorial at Mount Hope Cemetary.

Davis and his wife, Sarah, were married 50 years when she passed away in 1930. By the time of her death they had sold the farm and were living in town. Community members considered them to be antisocial, and John Milburn Davis was greatly disliked by the townspeople. Davis coined himself, "the most unpopular man in Kansas."

When John Milburn Davis passed away in 1947 the mourners at his funeral were very few. He and his wife, Sarah, are both buried within the memorial.

Sculptures of John Davis at The Davis Memorial

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John Milburn Davis before he lost his left hand in an accidentJohn Milburn Davis after losing his left hand in an accident with a scytheJohn Davis sitting alone next to "The Vacant Chair" after his wife, Sarah, diedThe head of John Milburn Davis was broken off of this statue that kneels at the foot of Sarah's grave.
John Milburn Davis before he lost his left hand in an accident
John Milburn Davis before he lost his left hand in an accident | Source
John Milburn Davis after losing his left hand in an accident with a scythe
John Milburn Davis after losing his left hand in an accident with a scythe | Source
John Davis sitting alone next to "The Vacant Chair" after his wife, Sarah, died
John Davis sitting alone next to "The Vacant Chair" after his wife, Sarah, died | Source
The head of John Milburn Davis was broken off of this statue that kneels at the foot of Sarah's grave.
The head of John Milburn Davis was broken off of this statue that kneels at the foot of Sarah's grave. | Source

What is The Davis Memorial?

The Davis Memorial is a 19ft x 19ft white marble and granite memorial located at Mount Hope Cemetary in Hiawatha, Kansas. The memorial consists of a large granite canopy that is estimated to weigh 50 tons. Beneath the canopy are 11 statues, all carved in Italy, that depict John Milburn Davis and his wife, Sarah, at different times in their married life.

One set of life size statues captures the look of the couple in youth seated on a bench. Another 4 sets of statues of John and Sarah depict them as they age through the years. John Davis is also featured sitting alone beside a large sculpted chair (The Vacant Chair) after the death of Sarah

The statues also bear witness to accidents incurred by John during his life. At one point John was burning cornstalks. Somehow his beard started on fire and was burned from one side of his face. One statue depicts him this way.

John Milburn Davis is also presented in some statues without his left hand. This is because he was involved in an accident with scythe which caused his hand and arm to become badly infected. His left arm was amputated below the elbow.

Sarah Davis is presented in prayer with a set of angel wings at the foot of John's grave.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
John Milburn Davis and wife, Sarah, sculpted as a young married couple.John and Sarah Davis sculpted in their later years.
John Milburn Davis and wife, Sarah, sculpted as a young married couple.
John Milburn Davis and wife, Sarah, sculpted as a young married couple. | Source
John and Sarah Davis sculpted in their later years.
John and Sarah Davis sculpted in their later years. | Source
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Mount Hope Cemetery is home to the Davis Memorial.
Mount Hope Cemetery is home to the Davis Memorial.
Mount Hope Cemetery is home to the Davis Memorial. | Source
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What's Your Take?

John Milburn Davis was __________ to create this memorial.

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When and Why Was The Davis Memorial Built?

The story of when The Davis Memorial was built is a point of controversy. Most sources indicate that John Davis erected the memorial after Sarah's death in 1930, and that the statues were created over the next 5 - 11 years. There is one source, however, that states Davis was so in love with his wife that he commissioned a sculptor in Italy to create the first set of statues within their first year of marriage. Thereafter, he sent photos of himself and Sarah at various intervals to the sculptor to have new statues created. This account also states that Davis had a granite wall erected around the memorial to discourage vandalism.

The question of why the memorial was constructed is somewhat puzzling. Married for 50 years, most people of the time stated that Davis treated his wife better in death than in life. Again, one source reads that the memorial was created over the 50 year married life of the couple due to Davis's great love for Sarah.

Adding to the confusion of why the memorial was created is the fact that John Milburn Davis was asked by the town to underwrite a hospital, high school and swimming pool. His response to the townspeople was that it was his money and he would spend it as he liked. Clearly, there was no love lost between Davis and the people of Hiawatha, Kansas.

Most sources agree that Davis did not want to give his money to the city of Hiawatha for community projects. For this reason, Davis was greatly disliked. And, like the memorial, this perception of Davis as a cold, ill-tempered man remains fixed in stone.

The Davis Memorial Helped Hiawatha, Kansas, Despite John Milburn's Intentions

John Davis Milburn had no desire in his lifetime to financially help the city of Hiawatha. Since its creation, however, the Davis Memorial has brought 10's of thousands of visitors to the city. The Davis Memorial has been listed in the National Registry of Historic Places since 1977. It has also been nominated as one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas. How ironic that he inevitably created one of the most successful tourist attractions in the area that continues to help the local economy!

Sculptures of Sarah Davis at The Davis Memorial

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Sarah Davis depicted in prayer with angel wings at the foot of John's grave
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Sarah Davis depicted in prayer with angel wings at the foot of John's grave
Sarah Davis depicted in prayer with angel wings at the foot of John's grave | Source

Location of the Davis Memorial

A markerMount Hope Cemetary -
606 Iowa Street, Hiawatha, KS 66434, USA
[get directions]

Mount Hope Cemetary in Hiawatha, Kansas is home to the historic Davis Memorial.

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Comments 2 comments

justateacher profile image

justateacher 3 years ago from Somewhere Over The Rainbow - Near Oz...

I will have to let my daughter know about this - she lives in KC and is always looking for new things to see...


kansasyarn profile image

kansasyarn 3 years ago from Rural Midwest Author

Thanks for taking the time to read. The memorial is about 90 minutes from KC. Hope she can make it!

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