The sun had barely risen in the sky when I arrived at the small cemetery resting in the shadow of the Blue Mountain. I crossed the damp grass to the clump of trees a couple yards off the road to the ancient cemetery hidden in the grove. I paused at the entrance gate to the old cemetery and realized why my contact suggested I visit this sacred place before the leaves sprouted forth – briars covered many of the graves and finding the one I sought would have been harder had they turned green. The paths that bounced around the cemetery, dancing from stone to stone, were covered with leaves; an occasional stone protruded from last year’s blanket.
I carefully stepped through the broken gate and paused at the first grave I saw. I was overcome with sadness as I discovered the words on the old, fragile stone could no longer be read. The smoothness of the stone told me that the words had faded long ago.
Leaving it, I carefully stepped around the old stones, reading the ones that I could, searching for the one that brought me to this historic plot of land. I was immediately taken in by the number of veterans buried here – many still were marked with faded and torn flags. Near the rear of the cemetery, amid a patch of brambles and almost hidden by the browned leaves, I found the grave I sought. The modern, flat stone was very simple and gives no hint of the interesting life the lady buried here lived. The stone merely states: “Amanda S. Snyder / June 2, 1875 / Oct 29, 1972.”
Amanda Straw was born in the Fishing Creek Valley, north of Harrisburg. When she was eighteen years old, Straw moved in with a relative in Philadelphia to attend the Pierce Business College. She began performing vaudeville where she was discovered by George Gibbs, an artist, who wanted her to be his model. He was attracted to her small stature, brown hair, and hourglass figure, which was popular at the time.
Straw adopted the professional name of Madeline Stokes, because she knew her family back in Fishing Valley would not approve of her modeling career. As a part of her modeling, Straw agreed to pose nude and she wanted to keep the secret from her family.
By her mid-thirties, Straw was in high demand as a model due to her striking beauty and because she was known to have an unmoving pose. Once Straw struck a pose, she could go nearly twenty-five minutes without moving. After taking a short break, she was able to return to the exact position without correction. Straw’s ability to remain motionless set a record when she remained in a plaster cast that covered her entire body for nine hours.
Straw posed for famous artists of the time including John Sloan, Robert Henri, and N.C. Wyeth. When not modeling for famous artists, she had a tour schedule visiting art schools in Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and Illinois. She graced many magazine covers of the times including The Delineator, The Metropolitan Magazine, The Ladies’ Home Journal, and The Saturday Evening Post.
In 1914, at the age of 38, Straw retired from modeling after marrying artist Albert Snyder. They moved to a farm near Utica, New York, and she remained there until his death in 1939. After his death, she returned to the Fishing Creek Valley where she remained until 1952, when she moved into the Homeland Center in Harrisburg. She would remain there until her death in 1972.
As I stood at her grave, I had to admit that I had never heard of Amanda Straw until I recently purchased a postcard featuring Italian Lake, a public park located at 3rd and Division Streets in Harrisburg. In the middle of the lake stands a sculpture known as The Dance of Eternal Spring – the three nymphs dancing on it were based on the model Amanda Straw.
The story of how it ended up in Italian Lake is quite a journey.
The journey of the statue begins in 1909. That year Milton S. Hershey commissioned Giuseppe Donato, an Italian sculptor who was living in Philadelphia, to create a fountain for the grounds of Hershey’s estate. A verbal commitment was struck and Hershey gave Donato two thousand dollars as a down payment for the fountain.
Donato settled on Amanda as one of his models and set to work creating his masterpiece.
When finished, Donato presented the fountain to Hershey who refused to pay for it or even have anything to do with the fountain. The exact reason why Hershey refused the fountain is not clear. A popular thought at the time was Hershey was shocked at the dancing nudes and was afraid of what his Dutch neighbors would think. However, the real reason for Hershey rejecting the fountain was the price tag of $30,000. Hershey refused to pay for the work and it sat for two years in a crate at the Hershey Railroad station.
In 1909, Giuseppe Donato sued Milton Hershey in the Dauphin County Court. Donato claimed he was commissioned to create the fountain despite the cost. Hershey claimed he wouldn’t pay ten dollars for anything from Donato’s studio. The jury sided with Donato, but only awarded him $23,000.
Even after paying for the fountain, Hershey refused to accept it.The fountain continued to sit at the railroad station until he gave it to Harrisburg. Officials promptly placed it in storage while trying to figure out what to do with it. At one point it was going to be placed in Riverfront Park, but that never happened.
While the debate was going on, the fountain sat unassembled in its original packaging. A frustrated Donato was so upset that his fountain had yet to be displayed that he supposedly claimed that the The Dance of Eternal Spring could be melted down for bullets, so at least it would be used for something. Despite his brash statement, Donato continued to hope that the city could find a place for it so its beauty could be seen by all.
In 1920 the statue was finally placed in Reservoir Park at a location hidden behind shrubbery in an attempt to hide the dancing nudes. A story goes that after The Dance of Eternal Spring was first erected, Straw and a friend from Fishing Creek Valley visited the fountain. Her friend, not knowing the nymphs were modeled after Straw, asked Amanda if she could ever imagine posing as a nude model. Amanda, keeping her career and the truth a secret, replied she could never image posing nude.
The fountain was moved in 1938 to the Municipal Rose Garden which was located along Third Street. The moving of the fountain created a lot of interest at the time. How would the nudes be transported from place to place? Would citizens be offended by the nude figures being transported through the city? One group wanted it covered with a sheet. Another group suggested it should be covered up and moved at night. Others wanted it placed it a large box truck. The debate came to an end when a city official stated he did not think it would necessary to cover the fountain during transport. When the fountain was moved it was placed on the back of a truck and moved without incident.
On September 15, 1938, the fountain was dedicated as a part of the Municipal Rose Garden, mostly forgotten. In February 1971, the Harrisburg Hospital asked city officials to remove the statue so they could expand.
The plan was for Donato’s fountain to be returned to storage with the destruction of the Municipal Rose Gardens. The fountain found an unlikely ally in Reverend Bell. Bell had salvaged some of the rose bushes and planted them behind the Grace United Methodist Church. Bell argued before the city council that the fountain should not remain in storage but, as a part of the city’s heritage, it should be displayed. He suggested Riverfront Park, but settled on Italian Lake. Amanda also addressed the council on the future of The Dance of Eternal Spring. Even in her mid-90s Amanda was described by reporters as being very sharp and charming.
In July 1971, spectators watched as a crane lowered the fountain onto a small island in the middle of Italian Lake. Amanda was among those watching the fountain being placed.
I finished paying my respects and carefully made my way out of the old cemetery, pausing at the entrance. Though her likeness still exists around the state, she, like the cemetery she rests in, has been forgotten by most.
Note: Amanda’s likeness can be seen in other places across Pennsylvania. She can be spotted in the murals done by Violet Oakley that adorn the state capitol building. These murals are located in the Governor’s Reception Room, the Senate Chamber, and the Supreme Court Room. Amanda was also the model for Alexander Stirling Calder’s Sun Dial which stands in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia.