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Veterans tribute gets Old Abe statue in Altoona

Leader-Telegram - 9/7/2022

Sep. 8—ALTOONA — Old Abe looks ready to fly again with his wings outstretched, head tilted slightly down and eyes intently trained on the ground below.

Cast in bronze, the life-size statue of the famous Civil War bald eagle from Eau Claire is the latest addition to the Chippewa Valley Veterans Tribute in Altoona.

Standing next to the statue at its unveiling on Wednesday, Eric Killen told the story of the mascot for the 8th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment.

"By the end of the war he was a renowned figure," said Killen, an Army veteran who serves as historian for the local veterans tribute organization.

Born in 1861, the eaglet was taken from its nest by a member of the local Ojibwe tribe, who then traded it to Daniel McCann Sr. During the start of the Civil War, McCann sold the bird to Eau Claire soldiers for $2.50, according to an article on the Wisconsin Historical Society's website. The eagle gained the name Old Abe in honor of President Abraham Lincoln and became part of the 8th Wisconsin Infantry'sCompany C, which had numerous soldiers from Eau Claire.

Old Abe had been known to occasionally fly over battlefields, inspiring his fellow Union troops and agitating Confederates, before returning to his perch.

Confederate soldiers even had a bounty on the eagle they referred to as that "damn Yankee buzzard," Killen said.

After his service in the Civil War, Old Abe became a popular patriotic symbol and was brought to county fairs, veterans events and other gatherings. His image even became a popular postcard, which has been reproduced in one of the banners perched from lampposts at the veterans tribute in Altoona.

"And his relatives fly over here all the time," Mark Beckfield, president of the local veterans tribute, quipped in reference to bald eagles that nest along the Eau Claire River.

Old Abe retired to the state Capitol, where he lived in its basement for visitors to see. The eagle died from smoke inhalation in a fire in 1881.

His image lives on today throughout Eau Claire — as the mascot of Memorial High School, adorning numerous signs around the city and in a statue in Wilson Park.

The veterans tribute also featured the image of Old Abe in the group's logo, due to the bird's connection to local military history.

"He was our icon from the very beginning," said Angela Deutschlander, vice president of the tribute's board of trustees.

While Old Abe is often depicted on his perch, the veterans tribute sought a more dramatic pose for its sculpture of the bird springing from a tree and taking flight.

Crafted by Colorado artist Sutton Betti, who has done other bronze statues for the local veterans tribute, the Old Abe sculpture weighs nearly 300 pounds and has a wingspan of about 72 inches.

For Wednesday's unveiling, the statue was set on a temporary display base at the Chippewa Valley Honor Mall, a part of the veterans tribute located in Altoona'sRiver Prairie development. The statue is slated to be installed later this year at its permanent location — on a base in the center of a roundabout in River Prairie near a 150-foot-tall flagpole. A plaque telling the bird's story is also planned near the statue.

Eventually the veterans tribute will have a second statue of Old Abe included in a display that will commemorate local soldiers who fought in the Civil War. Like displays for other U.S. wars that are planned for the tribute, the Civil War one will rely on donors to come forward to fund it.

The next planned ceremony at the Chippewa Valley Veterans Tribute will be on Veterans DayNov. 11. That day is when the tribute annually installs new memorial paver stones that loved ones bought in honor of veterans who were from the Chippewa Valley.


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