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Naming Andrew Jackson's horse in Lafayette Square

By John Kelly
Tuesday, August 3, 2010; B02

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the unusual questions that Washington tour guides receive from the visitors they squire around. For example: What is the name of the horse that Andrew Jackson sits upon in Lafayette Square?

I said this was unanswerable, because Jackson owned several horses. As luck would have it, the new issue of "White House History," a journal published by the White House Historical Association, includes an article on Clark Mills's sculpture by local historian James M. Goode. In it, James writes that Gen. Jackson's horse at the Battle of New Orleans was named Duke and that sculptor Mills modeled the bronze horse after his own, Olympus.

Mills "taught it to rear up on its hind legs during the modeling process," James writes.

The statue was erected in 1853, and it's significant for two reasons: It was the first bronze statue cast in this country (at a foundry Mills built at 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW). And it was the first equestrian statue in the world to be balanced on the horse's hind legs. It must have been the 3-D Imax movie of its day.

Washington has the original statue, but Mills's achievement so entranced the public that three more were cast. You can find duplicates in New Orleans (dedicated in 1856), Nashville (dedicated in 1880) and Jacksonville, Fla., (dedicated 1987).

James Goode is best known for his books on outdoor sculpture in Washington and the city's grand apartment buildings. But he has led tours, too, mostly for Smithsonian groups, and has his own tales from the front lines. He told me he once gave a tour of James Monroe's 1822 Greek Revival plantation house near Leesburg. In about 1920, the then-owner found a large slate boulder on the property and had it sawed into strips and used as flooring. The rock contained dinosaur footprints, a feature visible when the floor was laid to create a terrace that was later enclosed as a Florida room.

After the current owner of the house recounted all this to the group and pointed out the dinosaur footprints, a woman said, "You are very lucky he didn't hurt your house."

Speaking of tourist utterances, a reader who was a tour guide at Arlington National Cemetery one summer said a colleague told her about the memorable question he once received. The guide had just explained the significance of the Tomb of the Unknowns and how it contained a service member from each war.

A tourist asked, "Are their wives buried there, too?" The guide thought he was joking and said, "Yes, but we don't know their names, either."

The tourist was not joking, and he was not amused.

Needed: Blasts from the past

What if you threw a history conference and nobody came? That's not exactly what the organizers of this year's Washington Historical Studies Conference are worried about. The conference isn't until November, but they are sweating it a little bit. That's because by the time the May 28 deadline rolled around to submit panel proposals for the conference, only 10 had come in.

"We're used to having 30 to 40 submissions and getting to pick and choose," said Mark Greek, the head of the conference committee and a photo archivist at the D.C. Public Library. With 12 slots to fill over the two-day conference, 10 just won't cut it.

This will be 37th annual conference. I try to attend every year because it's a great way to meet people who peer into obscure corners of Washington's history, suburbs included. ("The story of Washington cannot be told without its suburbs," Greek said.)

Organizing a presentation is a great way for beginning academics to get their start, but the conference committee also welcomes amateurs. If you have an idea for a panel or presentation that you'd like to give, send it to Greek at mark.greek@dc.gov. The deadline for proposals has been extended to Aug. 25.

And if you're content to be in the audience, mark Nov. 5-6 on your calendar. The conference will be at the Sumner School, 17th and M streets NW. For information, visit http://www.historydc.org.

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