Smack-dab in the middle of Oak Hill Cemetery in southeast Cedar Rapids is the headstone for Byron H. McKeeby, a Cedar Rapidian who is likely to be unsurpassed in fame, or at least recognition. His final resting place is adjacent to artist Marvin Cone’s and just a stone’s toss from tombstones and mausoleums for the city’s founding fathers and early industry titans whose names you might recognize: Greene, Cherry, Hall and Sinclair.
Dr. Byron Henry McKeeby didn’t want to be famous. He shied away from artist Grant Wood’s initial offer to be the male model for “American Gothic,” Wood’s most iconic painting.
Wood said he’d exaggerate McKeeby’s features so no one would recognize him. The two were friends, so McKeeby relented.
Wood painted him in his dental office in the Cedar Rapids Savings Bank Building (now the Guaranty Bank Building). McKeeby was 62. He donned overalls and held a theater prop pitchfork. The rest of the painting, including the farm woman, which his sister, Nan, posed for, was executed a few blocks away in his studio loft at No. 5 Turner Alley.
The painting won a $300 prize and the bronze medal in a competition at the Art Institute of Chicago. The timing was perfect.
It was 1930 and photos had become permanent fixtures in newspapers as Linotype and photogravure technology became commonplace. Papers were running clearer-than-ever photos with nuanced shades of gray that could communicate subtle visual information. The ability of “American Gothic” to prompt different reads from different viewers made it irresistible to editors and readers alike. The arresting image of the Midwestern farm duo provoked a clash of questions, criticism and praise.
McKeeby distanced himself from the painting as it took the country by storm. Friends thought it was him and even joked about the pitchfork’s role in his dental procedures, but McKeeby stood firm in his denials. He was known for his dapper style and affable sense of humor. The real McKeeby was nothing like the dour farmer who challenged the painting’s viewers.
It was literally national news when McKeeby broke his silence in 1935 and admitted that, yes, he was the farmer with the pitchfork. Cy Douglass, an Associated Press news bureau chief, had helped prod the turnaround. He was close to the dentist’s oldest son, Gerald R. McKeeby, who had married Douglass’ sister.
McKeeby eventually embraced his role in the painting, appreciating the undying debates and the fact that he looked more like the embattled farmer as he got older.
McKeeby was three years from retiring in 1943 when Cedar Rapids was suddenly in the national spotlight.
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A national radio program called “We, the People” arrived to explore how a typical American town was faring during World War II. The broadcast took place live in (Veterans) Memorial Coliseum in front of 4,000 people. Another 10,000 were reported outside the building, listening via loudspeakers.
The guest host for the episode was U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. Morgenthau interviewed the family of a soldier killed in the Philippines on the first day of the war, a bomber pilot fresh from duty and, on a lighter note, McKeeby. Morgenthau asked McKeeby about Wood’s depiction of him.
“It made it (the friendship) a little bumpy, but nobody could really be mad at Grant Wood,” McKeeby said. “ ... (H)e painted a beautiful picture of a bridge for my new house (at 2649 Meadowbrook Dr.), and when he gave it to me he said, ‘Doctor, you made me a bridge once, now I’ve made you one!’ ”
Where is it?
Specific knowledge about the McKeeby bridge painting has been hard to come by. Is it somewhere in Cedar Rapids, waiting to be identified, verified and brought to light?
Jan Bear of Marion, McKeeby’s great-granddaughter, says she doesn’t have it and isn’t aware of any relatives owning it. She’s in her mid 60s and enjoys testing people’s believability when she tells them who her great-grandfather is.
McKeeby was in the first class of graduates of the State University (U of I) School of Dentistry in 1894. He practiced dentistry in Cedar Rapids for 49 years. He brought the first dental X-ray to town and prioritized keeping up with emerging technology. There is one account of McKeeby doing dental work on credit with no interest.
McKeeby’s legacy in the art world would have another branch. His youngest son, Byron J. McKeeby, had a son named Byron G. McKeeby who studied art with Marvin Cone at Coe College. Byron G. also studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and taught at Tulane and the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Before dying in 1984, he became known for his stone lithograph prints, a medium that Grant Wood also was known for.
Joe Coffey is a freelance writer with 20 years of experience as a journalist, educator and content marketer in Cedar Rapids. He has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Iowa and is writing a book on Grant Wood. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org