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An audiovisual presentation is set in an elaborate re-imagining of a famous painting of the Continental Congress.
An audiovisual presentation is set in an elaborate re-imagining of a famous painting of the Continental Congress.

America's Founding Fathers Exhibit (Gone)

Field review by the editors.

Rapid City, South Dakota

Editor's note: Though the replica building remains, the attraction in our story closed, and is now a candy store. Hooray for free-market capitalism!

Independence Hall replica (with Liberty Bell).
Independence Hall replica (with Liberty Bell).

The Founding Fathers -- that bunch of nation-building polymaths. Technically, they were traitors, meeting in secret to hatch the brilliant monstrosity we know as America. But to this day, Americans still debate over precisely what they intended, and who they even were.

Beyond the bank guy, the kite guy, and the beer guy (John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin, and Sam Adams), it might all be a puffy blur of white men in wigs.

America's Founding Fathers Exhibit embarks on an against-all-odds mission of enlightenment about the Declaration of Independence and the visionaries behind it. Also, how to shoot a black powder musket at British troops (just like a Founding Father)!

The tourist attraction, open since 2014, is the brainchild of Black Hills businessman Don Perdue (also catalyst for Rapid City's Street Corner Presidents). Among a string of tourist attractions on the highway to Mount Rushmore, its brick replica of Philadelphia's Independence Hall is unique, if not especially promising in the thrills department.

Visitors enter the building and are then escorted by a guide. History buffs gasp with recognition, while it dawns on kids this might be a learning experience ambush.

The main chamber is devoted to a three-dimensional rendition of John Trumbull's (1756-1843) famous painting of the first draft of the Declaration of Independence presented to the 2nd Congressional Congress in 1776. Perdue asked painter-sculptor James Van Nuys to lead a small team in creating the unique tableaux.

From the back you can pretend you are the most forgotten Founding Father, your view chiefly of powdered wigs.
From the back you can pretend you are the most forgotten Founding Father, your view chiefly of powdered wigs.

Our guide, Julie, provides an overview of the exhibit. As soothing orchestral music is piped in, she points out a painting on an easel, "Declaration of Independence," the basis for the exhibit. This front POV is the best spot for viewers to appreciate the remarkable resemblance. There are 47 life-sized figures. "It's the little details that turn a two-dimensional painting into a three-dimensional piece of art," said Julie, who showed us one figure holding "a cane for whacking Congressional Congress delegates," and another, nicknamed "The White Peacock," sporting jeweled rings.

Richard Henry Lee and firebrand Sam Adams.
Richard Henry Lee and firebrand Sam Adams.

Keep in mind, those details aren't in the original painting. Since this Congress is in three dimensions, hidden and speculative touches could be added. As the sculptor told us later: "Even the design of the room in the [Trumbull] painting is not what Independence Hall looks like. Simple classical composition, it doesn't have much to do with reality. But I think it's a good painting." An 18x12 ft. mural version is in Washington DC (in the Capitol rotunda since 1826).

The lights dim, and melancholy trumpets fill the air: "When in the course of human events..." Visitors can sit, or walk around the exhibit perimeter and read bios on each delegate, while narrators set the stage for the struggle for Independence, and the Continental Congress gathering in Philadelphia. "People were sick and tired of paying oppressive taxes"..."finally declaring in the summer of 1776 that America is a free and sovereign nation."

Laser pointer picks out absentee delegate Robert Livingston behind Jefferson.
Laser pointer picks out absentee delegate Robert Livingston behind Jefferson.

Spotlights illuminate groups and individuals, providing context about their role in history. "If we want to see a cross-section of 18th century American leaders, we need look no further than this room."

The Trumbull painting depicted 47 men, but there were 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence. Five men in the painting didn't sign it. And 14 signers aren't in the painting. George Washington, who was off fighting a war rather than serving in the 2nd Congress, was not a Signer, not in the painting, and not in the Exhibit. But wasn't he the Founding Father of Our Country?

Okaaayyy...time to head to the shooting range.

Shoot Muskets Like The Founding Fathers

The instructor on the Musket Range when we visited is introduced as James Van Nuys -- the same sculptor who created the Founding Father figures.

James briefs us on the loading and shooting procedure for the Kentucky long rifle. We'll leave that part of the experience for you to check out in person. During our visit, the targets were illustrations of British soldiers.

Turning the Founding Fathers Painting Into a Sculpture

Firing a musket at the Redcoat target.
Firing a musket at the Redcoat target.

James filled us in on the process of creating the Exhibit. "I thought it was a crazy idea" for an attraction," he said. 'but once they were in place [in faux Independence Hall] it had a feel, a power to it that I hadn't visualized. Don Perdue had a pretty clear idea what he wanted."

James said this large project required a new approach to sculpture, since traditional bronze would have been insanely expensive.

Sculptor (and occasional musket instructor) James Van Nuys.
Sculptor (and occasional musket instructor) James Van Nuys.

We asked, predictably: what about wax?

"We went up and looked at the local wax museum -- there's something creepy about the real hair, real clothes, and the faces that aren't quite real. I thought it would be better if everything was at the same level of reality. A three dimensional painting. The guys are supposed to look like the guys in the painting, not you and me standing here," James said. "That was my approach to it."

"I had no idea how exactly I was going to do it."

For the first one, James started with George Clymer, one of the obscure guys in the back of Trumbull's painting. "I found real clothes from a company that makes them for reenactors. I put those on a posable mannequin with acrylic fabric stiffener, and painted them. I cast the hands from my own hands. I made the head in clay, cast it in resin, and painted it as realistically as I could."

Founding Fathers are not made overnight. "I fiddled around with that first one for about a year," James said. He finally asked owner Don to come in to look at it.

Don said: "That looks like s**t."

"I said, 'Could you be more specific? Tell me what you want changed.' He did. So I sanded all the paint off the face. Repainted it, and it looked better -- a lot better the second time."

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the only two U.S. President Signers, both died on the same day, July 4th, 1826.
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the only two U.S. President Signers, both died on the same day, July 4th, 1826.

"Once we got going, my two main assistants and I were turning out a couple a week. It was a very interesting project."

James got back to showing us how to handle a musket, and we mentioned trivia learned in the Exhibit: Delegate Richard Henry Lee blew off the fingers on his left hand in a shooting accident. James recalled when one of his researchers informed him of that important detail. "We had [Lee] all done, so I had to pull off that hand, cut the fingers off, then wrap it in a black cloth, just like he did."

Musket shooting is turning out to be popular, and may catch on at other patriotic attractions. Beth Palmer, Founding Fathers general manager, noted that their shooting is about 75% cheaper than what you'd pay to shoot muskets at Colonial Williamsburg.

Kids under 16 aren't allowed to fire the muskets -- so it may be tricky to convince them this wasn't a homework-ambush-attraction after all. Just remind the youngsters that in America, liberty only comes to those who earn it.

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America's Founding Fathers Exhibit

On the southbound side of US Hwy 16, nine miles south of I-90 exit 57. Just south of Reptile Gardens and north of Bear Country.

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