Meade School District loans historic painting to museum

May 18, 2019
Randy Bender, president of board of directors of the Old Fort Meade Museum, and Meade School District Superintendent Jeff Simmons hold a framed print of the USS Constitution, aka Old Ironsides. (Deb Holland/Black Hills Pioneer via AP)

STURGIS, S.D. (AP) — Randy Bender has uncovered a gem that is now on display for all to see: While visiting Sturgis Brown High School, the president of board of directors of the Old Fort Meade Museum stumbled upon a watercolor painting of the 222-year-old USS Constitution, the oldest commissioned warship in the world still afloat.

Bender’s discovery of the painting came while he was working with students at the high school a couple years ago.

He said he wrote down the information contained on a plaque that explained the painting and sent off an email to the USS Constitution Museum.

“I took a picture of it with my phone, and I asked them what information they could give me on it,” he said to the Black Hills Pioneer.

A woman from the museum replied, saying that it looked like a Gordon Grant print that was sold from 1927-31 as a fundraiser for the re-fitting of the ship.

According to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Grant’s specialty was depictions of historic sailing vessels, such as the USS Constitution, also known as Old Ironsides.

It was one of six frigates authorized to be built under the Naval Armament Act of 1794. By 1925, the ship desperately needed work, and Congress authorized repairs, but stipulated it be paid for by public donations.

The Grant prints sold for 25 to 50 cents each. They also sold picture frames made of salvaged bits of the ship. An inscription on the frame reads: “The material was taken from the original hull of the U.S. Frigate Constitution keel laid in 1794.”

The Sturgis High School Class of 1929 made the decision to buy a print and frame as their legacy gift to the school.

Nationwide, the effort raised $750,000 — the equivalent of $11 million in 2019.

“It’s phenomenal that the public stepped up and did this. The school children alone sent in over $300,000,” Bender said.

Bender first noticed the painting in a trophy case at the end of a long hallway, and wanted to bring it to the museum for more people to view.

“I don’t think anybody saw it out at the high school. If you weren’t looking for it, you would never see it,” he said.

Bender approached the school district about displaying the print at the museum. They initially declined allowing the painting to leave school property.

Bender asked again, and Superintendent Jeff Simmons agreed to loan the painting to the museum, saying it made sense to share the artifact

“It seemed like this would be a good place to have it and get it out where a lot of people can see it,” he said.

Bender tied the print into the Fort Meade story by displaying it next to the musical score for the Star-Spangled Banner.

Here’s the tie-in: The USS Constitution played a significant role in the War of 1812, during which Francis Scott Key wrote the Star-Spangled Banner.

Fast-forward 78 years: In 1892, Col. Caleb H. Carlton began using the Star-Spangled Banner as part of the Retreat Ceremonies at Fort Meade — beginning a movement that made it our national anthem.

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