Q. David Bowers
Following Rovelstad's death in 1990 a local newspaper account noted. (Reprinted in The Commemorative Trail, Fall-Winter 1990.) "Rovelstad is also survived by his unfinished work, Pioneer Memorial, a project he began during the Great Depression when the government was helping artists. For the next 50 years Rovelstad would try to find sponsors to erect the Memorial, a huge quartet of statues in the heroic style. A pedestal for the memorial still stands empty in Davidson Park in Elgin's east side."
The account further related that Rovelstad's typical statues were "thickly muscled figures with strong chiseled features and epic, almost overwhelming, size." Further:
"He remained philosophical, even though many of his grandiose visions never materialized. The Pioneer project still resides in his cluttered Elgin studio. 'One mayor told me, 'You'll have a gray beard before that statue ever goes up,' Rovelstad said in an interview several years ago. 'But it's been worth the effort. Even if I didn't have that to work on, I'd be working in the garden.'"
Shortly before his death, he told his wife, "I've lived a full life and have no regrets. The Pioneer Memorial is now completed. I've done all I could. Now it's up to others to see it erected. I can do no more." (Letter from Gloria Rovelstad to the author, April 5, 1991.)
Hope for the project lived on after Rovelstad's death. Local citizens were requested to send contributions in his memory to the Pioneer Memorial Foundation of Illinois, Inc. in Elgin. Perhaps some future year will see the erection in Elgin's Davidson Park of the long-delayed statuary group.
A Modern Commentary
Of all modern authors Cornelius Vermeule has furnished the most detailed analyses of coin motifs. In the Elgin half dollar he saw a masterpiece: (Numismatic Art in America, p. 197.) "It is difficult to find a more aesthetically satisfying, technically superior commemorative half dollar than the Elgin, Illinois Centennial of 1936. The subjects of both obverse and reverse, Pioneer Memorial in Elgin, are, like the obverse of the Stone Mountain half dollar in 1925, an example of a statue group being used as a coin design by the man who was also sculptor of the group. Triple use or creation can be said to have been achieved, because the head of the old pioneer on the obverse is also the head of the man with the rifle at the front of the group on the reverse.
"The three-dimensionality, as well as the precise detail, of the four figures has been cleverly translated onto the reverse of the coin. The lettering is inconspicuous and, especially on the obverse, nobly spaced out.... The designer of this half dollar, thus also sculptor of the statue, Trygve A. Rovelstad, has produced one of the major documents of sculptural plasticity and vibrant relief in the series of commemorative coins. His obverse is worthy of a Roman medallion, and his reverse rivals the great Neoclassic dies of England or Bavaria in the nineteenth century."
Selling the Elgin Half Dollars
Sales of the Elgin "Pioneer" half dollars were effected through the Elgin Centennial Monumental Committee, with L.W. Hoffecker filling orders through P.O. Box 75 in El Paso. The Elgin coins were offered for $1.50 each, although Hoffecker could have set any price he pleased.
About 3,500 form letters were sent by L.W. Hoffecker on July 1, 1936, to names on his mailing list and to those who had inquired about the forthcoming Elgin half dollar. He sought to promote the issue by stating that "we have over 7,000 advance orders on our books." Further: "I hope the collectors will not delay sending in their orders as I wish to give them the same service I gave them when handling the Old Spanish Trail coin but cannot do so without their cooperation. I also wish to take care of the dealers for a reasonable number of coins, sufficient to supply their customers. We expect to make delivery of the coins sometime in the early fall, as soon as the Mint can deliver them, but please be patient as we cannot hurry the government."
L.W. Hoffecker, then in the midst of receiving orders for the forthcoming Elginissue, wrote to Walter P. Nichols on August 13, 1936, and discussed problems concerning commemorative coin distribution:
"In reference to the collectors financing an issue, I don't see anything wrong about it if you accept their money and give them their coins, but they certainly do have a kick if their money is kept for three or four months and then returned. I had all my money in the bank for the coins before I received them. On a 10,000 issue I can sell all the coins without putting a single ad in a magazine.(A reference to Hoffecker's distribution in 1935 of the Old Spanish Trail half dollars, although Hoffecker apparently forgot that this issue of 10,000 coins was advertised in two magazines-The Numismatist and Hobbies-in July, August, and September 1935, or a total of six advertisements.)
"On account of there being so many issues out now, it is a hardship on the dealers to put up so much money, and, knowing them all, I am telling the respon-sible ones that if they will send me a down payment of 25% I will book their order and notify them when the coins are ready for shipment, and they can remit the balance then. I think this is no more than right. But if a small collector wants a coin and is not willing to pay his money and let you use it to pay for the coins, he is not entitled to one. I made arrangements with the Federal Reserve Bank to have the coins shipped here, and my bank had already told me they would put up the money for the coins and carry them on their cash account, not thinking that I would have enough money on hand.
"I also had dealers ask me to buy the entire issue. One of the largest in the country told me afterwards I was doing the right thing in turning him down, but everybody else was trying to get all the coins they could, and there was no harm in his trying, but he admired me for not taking him up."
The Mint was expected to complete work on the dies on September 28th and to commence striking coins soon thereafter. (Letter from Trygve A. Rovelstad to his mother, Anna M.K. Rovelstad, September 16, 1936. His mother followed the coin situation closely and purchased 100 pieces.) Trygve Rovelstad visited Philadelphia, stayed overnight in Chief Engraver John Sinnock's home, and was on hand at the Mint as the Elgin half dollars were struck. The first 10 pieces were handed individually to Rovelstad, who placed them in paper envelopes and took them back to Illinois. (Information from Gloria Rovelstad in a letter to the author, April 5, 1991. She further related that he was offered a job at the Mint but declined.) The Mint shipped the balance of 24,990 coins to El Paso on Wednesday, October 7th.
Hoffecker, replying to an earlier letter from Rovelstad, wrote on October 10th: "They will probably get here Sunday. These Federal Reserve banks give me a pain. It seems they look for some way to delay things all the time." Apparently, Chief Engraver Sinnock was making some Matte Proofs, for the letter continued: "I note what you say about Mr. Sinnock putting several of the coins through an acid bath. I would very much like to get one or two of these for my own personal collection."
On October 12, 1936, Hoffecker wrote to The Numismatist, stating that he had received his coins on Sunday (October 11) and would have all orders completely mailed out by Tuesday night, "as we had the envelopes all ready, with the stamps on." Hoffecker's friend, editor Frank Duffield, commented: "This sounds like real service."
On the same day he wrote to Trygve A. Rovelstad discussing his business agreement: "Figuring that there is a dollar profit in these coins, selling them at $1.50, you are getting 65% of this profit, and I am getting 35%." This amounted to 65Â¢ profit per coin for Rovelstad and 35Â¢ for Hoffecker for coins sold at the full price. Hoffecker went on to suggest that Rovelstad consider letting him sell a large quantity, possibly 4,000 pieces, to a buyer who apparently offered $1.25 per coin.