The Sculpture that Killed the Sculptor

Lester H. Drake

Born July 31, 1822, at Dansville, New York

Died March 17, 1889, at Denver, Colorado

Eliza A. Wheelock Drake

Born January 8, 1826, New York

Died August 4, 1916, Chicago, Illinois

Nestled in the center of the historic Riverside Cemetery in Denver, Colorado, is a monument that is a near-replica of the mining cabin of Lester Drake, one of Denver’s earliest pioneers.  Drake, a New York native, ventured across the continental United States in the spring of 1860 in search of his fortune.  Drake had caught the “gold fever” that was sweeping across Colorado and the Western United States.  Drake settled in the Lake Gulch District of Gilpin County where he first farmed and raised horses.  He also engaged in the mining business.  He bought interest in the rich Washington Mine which made his first fortune.

After Lester Drake’s death, the M. Rauh Marble Works Company, which operated at 36 and Blake Street in Denver and operated by Adolph and Mary Rauh, was commissioned to create the mining cabin sculpture monument. According to author Annette Stott, who wrote Pioneer Cemeteries: Sculpture Gardens of the Old West, published by the University of Nebraska Press, (pages 158 and 159), “Norwegian immigrant Ole J. Rustad …carved the Drake cabin according to the oral tradition among the Rustad’ descendants.  Ole Rustad came to Denver the year before Lester Drake died and advertised himself as a stonecutter.  City directories confirm that he worked for M. Rauh from 1889 until 1893.”

“Although it looks like cement to many people, the Lester Drake monument was carved from one block of Bedford limestone.”  The cabin, weighing several tons and standing at 5 feet tall at the roof peek, is amazing in its realistic detail.  Leaning to the right of the cabin door is a nearly life-size shovel and pickax—tools of the miner’s trade.  To the left of the door ivy vines are twinning up the face of the cabin and ferns sprouting.  In cemetery symbolism the fern has come to represent humbleness and sincerity.  It also symbolizes seclusion, which was certainly part of the early life of a miner.  The ivy symbolizes immortality.  In addition to that, because of the way the plant winds its way up a surface and clings to it the ivy has come to represent everlasting love and eternal friendship.  However, it is just as likely that these plants are merely representative of the Colorado flora.

Like many log cabins of the era, this monument depicts a latchstring as the way to open the door.   The latchstring would be pulled in at night to keep the door from being opened on the outside.  In this case the latchstring is out, which symbolizes welcome and hospitality.

According to Stott, “what is most unusual are the realistic proportions.  It measures six feet wide by four feet deep by five feet tall at the roof peek.  Doubling those figures would create a fairly normal-sized cabin.”

Tragedy struck the day the monument was loaded onto a wagon and pulled to the Riverside Cemetery.  When the great stone was being unloaded Rustad was there to see his monument put in place and help unload it.  During the unloading the monument slipped throwing most of its weight onto the thirty-one-year-old Rustad.  According to Rustad’s family members, his death was the result of complications from the accident. 

His masterpiece was the instrument of his untimely death.

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