John Milburn Davis, minus his left hand, sits next to The Vacant Chair.
John Milburn Davis, minus his left hand, sits next to The Vacant Chair.

The Strange Grave of John Milburn Davis

Field review by the editors.

Hiawatha, Kansas

When we visited M.T. Liggett and his political art in Mullinville, Kansas, we thought that we'd met the most cantankerous man in the Sunflower State.

Davis Memorial postcard and booklet.
Vintage Davis Memorial postcard and booklet.

But as crotchety as M.T. was, he would probably place second to John Milburn Davis.

Davis was a wealthy farmer in the county seat of Hiawatha, Kansas. When his wife, Sarah, died in 1930, he was old and childless. People in town started asking him: What are you going to do with your money? People also had suggestions for Davis and his money: he should build a hospital for the town, a park for the town, a swimming pool for the town.

Younger.
Sarah and beardless John, on a love seat, in marble.

Instead, John Milburn Davis built a grave.

It started small, at least by later standards. Davis had 7.5-ton slabs of granite placed over his and Sarah's graves, and raised a 52-ton slab of granite over the Davis burial plot on six granite pillars. Beneath it, overlooking the graves, he placed life-size statues -- carved in marble in Italy at great expense -- of himself and Sarah as they'd looked on their 50th wedding anniversary.

Even in death, Davis had money for a fancy casket.
Even in death, Davis had money for a fancy casket.

If Davis had stopped there, the town might have forgiven him. But he didn't stop there. Davis liked the statues so much that he ordered a second standing pair from Italy, depicting himself and Sarah in marble as they'd looked on their 10th anniversary. Then a third, seated, marble pair followed, this one of the couple in 1898, when Davis briefly lacked a beard (It had burned off in a farm accident).

At this point Davis had pretty much run out of room under the canopy, but he kept going anyway. A fourth marble pair was seated out in the open air, depicting the couple as they'd looked in 1908, after Davis had lost his left hand (in another farm accident). An additional outdoor pair followed -- the only one carved in granite -- showing Davis as he looked when the grave was under construction, sitting next to an empty "Vacant Chair" instead of his wife. The final pair of statues, back under the canopy, show Davis and Sarah in marble again, kneeling at the feet of their respective graves. Sarah is portrayed as an angel.

Davis became a permanent resident of his grave in 1947.
Davis became a permanent resident of his grave in 1947.

Davis said that he built The Davis Memorial -- as it was called -- to honor his wife, but the final statue total was John 6, Sarah 5.

Even though the last of the statues didn't arrive until 1934, the Davis Memorial had already become famous, or infamous, in newsreels, newspapers, and postcards. It had also become a destination for visitors -- so many visitors that Davis had to erect a three-foot-high granite wall around the Memorial in 1935 to keep people from damaging the statues. Davis was known to sit in the cemetery on Sundays, watching tourists visit the graves.

The Memorial as it looks today, with its protective wall.
The Memorial as it looks today, with its protective wall.

Davis refused to say how much he'd spent on the Davis Memorial (guesses ranged from $60,000 to $1 million), or why he needed to spend as much as he did, or why he didn't spend any of it to help the town, which was suffering in the depths of the Great Depression. "He was a very private man," said Lynn Allen, director of the Brown County Historical Society. "And he didn't want to be told what to do."

Marble likeness of 1890s Sarah Davis.
Marble likeness of 1890s Sarah Davis.

Davis rarely spoke at all -- according to Lynn, he carried a business card printed, "I'll thank you very kindly to mind your business" -- but a four-page pamphlet about the Davis Memorial apparently had his blessing. It took the position that Davis would have never been able to satisfy everyone, so he decided to satisfy himself. "It's my money and I spend it the way I please," he told a reporter in 1938. "They hate me in Kansas."

John Milburn Davis was 92 when he died on April 26, 1947. He was buried next to Sarah. A photo of the burial shows about ten mourners, which for Davis might have been a good crowd.

In 1990 the statue of kneeling Davis was decapitated, whether from mindless vandalism or delayed outrage no one can say. Teens at the Hiawatha Pizza Hut had a lead that they shared with us in 1991: "That head was throwed in a pond is what we heard." Although over 30 years has passed since the vandalism, Lynn said that there's still a reward of $10,000 for the head.

"Because it's a historical monument we can't replace the head with a new head," said Lynn. "It has to be the original head."

Sunset at the Davis Memorial.
Sunset at the Davis Memorial.

Hiawatha did eventually get the hospital, the park, and the swimming pool that it wanted. None of these improvements were bankrolled by John Milburn Davis, but he did help fund them indirectly. "The very thing that the people of Hiawatha wanted -- something for them -- is what he gave them," said Lynn. The town, which hated Davis for wasting his money on himself, has profited in the long run by having one of the most visited offbeat attractions in Kansas.

Also see: The Wooldridge Monuments, Mayfield, Kentucky

The Strange Grave of John Milburn Davis

Mt. Hope Cemetery

Address:
606 E. Iowa St., Hiawatha, KS
Directions:
Mt. Hope Cemetery. From US-36 exit onto US-73. Turn north and drive a half-mile into town. At the stoplight turn right onto E. Iowa St. Drive a half-mile. Turn left into the cemetery. You'll see the Davis Grave straight ahead, on the left.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
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In the region:
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