In November 1914, The Trinity Chronicle announced that a bronze figure representing The Sower had recently been placed on campus as a gift of Mr. James B. Duke. Of all the statuary on campus that of the Sower, observable on the lawn between the entrance to East Campus and the East Duke building, is the only one not depicting a member of the Duke family or an historical figure of the college or university. To the university community today the statue's history is interesting, its part in campus tradition amusing, and its role enduring.
At the time of the gift, John C. Kilgo, former president of Trinity College (1894-1910), was residing on campus as a Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Kilgo was especially close to the Duke family and while visiting James B. Duke, he admired the statue which was part of the extensive landscaping at Duke's estate in New Jersey. Duke promptly donated the work to Trinity College.
Kilgo was particularly drawn to the figure because of an inspiring, popular baccalaureate sermon based on the parable of the Sower from the Gospel of Matthew preached two years previously at Trinity commencement by his colleague Bishop W. T. McDowell. Kilgo also admired the statue's "strength and nobleness of face and the strong arm with which the laborer faced his daily toil." He believed the statue would be a powerful model for students as they completed four years of study and faced the challenge of life.
Duke had discovered the Sower while on a grand tour of Europe and purchased it in Leipzig. The Chronicle reported that the statue was signed by St. Walter but that no information was available about the sculptor. An inscription on the statue reveals that it was a production of the Gladenbeck Foundry in Freidrechshagen near Berlin. Research has revealed that the sculptor was Stephan Anton Friedrich Walter, born in Nurnberg in 1871. A catalog from the Great Berlin Exhibition of Art in 1911 reveals that Walter had been an independent sculptor since 1898 and he first participated in the Berlin exhibition in 1899. Among his works was a figure entitled "Sower From The Time of the Great Elector." Thus the figure is that of a seventeenth century peasant sowing his fields. The university statue is undoubtedly a small scale version of the heroic size figure believed to have been made for the Neiderbariner Hospital in Berlin. Unfortunately little else is known about Stephan Walter. A few additional works are noted and he is identified as a member of the Union of Berlin Artists in the 1928 edition of Wer Ist's?, the German version of Who's Who.
On campus the statue assumed a role unanticipated by Bishop Kilgo. At a time when women students were permitted only three dates a week and those were carefully defined, students could stroll about certain areas of campus without it counting as an allowed date. The Sower acquired the role of cupid as couples began placing pennies in his hand and claiming a kiss from their partner if the pennies were gone upon return. Although the origin of this practice is largely unknown, and it is unnecessary to most students today, it is not uncommon to still discover pennies in the Sower's hand.
Campus wags have had fun with the statue as well. Parents have characterized it as a student with a hand out for money, and a campus caretaker reportedly told visitors for years that it was a statue of Mr. Duke sowing his money.
In 1980, at the urging of staff member Rebekah Kirby, the Founders' Society adopted the figure as its symbol. The Society, which existed from 1980 to 2004, honored individuals who established named, permanent, fully-funded endowments, thus providing for the future of Duke University. Franklin Creech, an alumnus of the class of 1964, fashioned a remarkable twelve-inch high replica of the statue to present to members of the Society. By reason of their generosity, these founders were sowing that future generations could reap the harvest of their labor.
The Sower maintains a unique position in the history of the university. First revered by Trinity College students, it became a special symbol for residents of the Woman's College when East Campus was exclusively for women. Restored in 2005, it continues to be a focal point and popular destination on East Campus.
For Further Research
- Duke University Building Reference Collection, 1972-ongoing (view this collection guide)
- University Archives Photograph Collection, 1861-ongoing (view this collection guide)
- "Campus Statues" (read this article)
© 1991. William E. King, University Archivist, 1972-2002. Edited March 28, 2006 to update information about The Founder's Society.
This article is reprinted from If Gargoyles Could Talk: Sketches of Duke University by William E. King. Carolina Academic Press, 1997.