By Judy Reed
For years a 1911 bas relief of the signing of the Mayflower Compact hung on the wall of the old Cedar Springs High School—at Hilltop. It was bought and donated to the school by the class of 1929, and hung on the walls at least into the 1950s. Cracked and dilapidated after years of being neglected, it was eventually donated to the Cedar Springs Historical Museum, where it has now been given a new birth by volunteer Marie Patin.
The plaster relief, with a copyright of 1911, was sculpted by Pietro P. Caproni and Bro., Boston. They were manufacturers of plaster reproductions of classical and contemporary statues. These cast reproductions were, in an era before commercial photography, an integral educational tool in teaching people the history of art and antiquities.
Patin said they moved it out of storage when they did the haunted house at Halloween, and someone suggested that they try to clean it up, although it was in bad shape. There was a crack running all across the top, with a triangular hole in the top middle, more cracks throughout, peeling paint, and even some key pieces missing. But Patin felt up to the challenge. “I paint ceramics at home, and have experience filling holes, and fixing things. I’m a crafty person.” Patin had her work cut out for her. In addition to the holes, cracks and missing shoes, fingers, etc., the work had been painted over several times—and not by an artist.
Historical Society President Fred Gunnell worked part time as a student worker doing janitorial work in the summer when the picture was hanging at Hilltop. “We used to take it down to paint the walls, then one year the janitor, Bert Hawkins, said to just paint over it, so we did,” he recalled.
A picture in the 1952 yearbook shows the sculpture hanging in the hallway at the top of the stairs, where several students are lined up. Gunnell recalled that there was also a duplicate—or at least another similar relief, that also hung at the school, along with some busts in the library. But this particular bas relief is the only one that the museum has.
DM White made a special frame for the artwork. “The back is hollow and there is no support for the body parts,” he noted. “So we shimmed it up from behind.”
Patin used powdered plaster of paris and worked on the relief tediously one day a week at the museum—for 2-1/2 months. “I’m tickled. I like the way it turned out,” she said. “It was kind of fun because I like to see things come to life—it’s rewarding. It was an achievement, history preserved,” she explained.
The Caproni brothers—Pietro and Emilio—supplied major universities and museums with quality reproductions. The firm operated under their ownership between 1892 and 1927, the year the company was sold and a year before Pietro’s death.
The museum, located at Morley Park, on Cedar Street in Cedar Springs, plans to display the relief behind the counter, and it will be ready for patrons to see next Wednesday between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.