PLYMOUTH — Here in the hometown of Thanksgiving, where tourists are so eager to gobble up anything Mayflower that they jostle for views of a boulder and leave souvenir shops wearing giant hats adorned with buckles, the Jenney Museum offers two Pilgrim-themed walking tours.
The more popular of them is fairly standard. It leaves the Summer Street museum and makes the short walk to the touristy waterfront, hitting all the historic stops and the famous rock.
The other tour, however, requires ticketholders to drive away from the crowds, up through a neighborhood of good-sized homes with good-sized trees, to a quiet hilltop spot about a mile away.
It is here that Leo Martin, the museum’s outspoken tour guide, has been on a two-decade quest to call attention to a monument to the Pilgrims that has been strangely ignored, considering that it is 81 feet tall and is believed to be the largest solid granite monument in the United States and possibly the world.
“There are people who live in Plymouth who don’t even know it’s here!” Martin declared, which is his standard manner of communication.
It’s called the National Monument to the Forefathers, and it is so massive in size and ambitious in scope that it took the Pilgrim Society nearly 30 years to build, finally completing the project in 1889, almost seven decades after it had been conceived.
The story of how it became virtually invisible is equally as long, for it involves the neighborhood and trees that slowly grew up around it, eventually blocking the monument from view down on the waterfront. “Now the only way to see it is if you’re on a boat or you’re standing right next to it,” Martin said.
But he and his wife, Nancy, who cofounded the Jenney Museum, believe there is another reason the monument has been ignored, one that goes beyond simple geography. They believe the monument contains a recipe, left behind by the Pilgrims, for a Christian nation.
“The name of the statue on top is Faith, and it tells the faith story of the Pilgrims,” Nancy said. “And in this atmosphere, a lot of people don’t want to hear that story.”
“Thanksgiving is not about turkeys and buckles!” Leo declared.
And so the Martins have made the giant monument and their tiny museum the centerpieces of a mission to put Christ back in Thanksgiving.
On a recent day, Leo — dressed as usual in period garb, sans giant belt buckle — led a small tour group around the Forefathers monument, which sits on a 10-acre hillside plot, much of it now wooded, and encircled by a 30-foot-wide drive.
Martin walked slowly and silently from the drive to the base of the monument, allowing the two dozen people following him the opportunity to crane their necks back and begin processing just how big an 81-foot statue is. By comparison, the heads on Mount Rushmore are 60 feet tall. The hulking statue of a seated Abraham Lincoln inside the Lincoln Memorial is just under 30 feet high; even if he stood up on his pedestal, his head would not reach 40 feet.
“Up close, it’s like ‘How can someone miss this?’ It’s huge,” said Angel Gutlon, who lives in neighboring Kingston and confessed she had no idea the 180-ton monument was just up the road until recently. “It’s so set back and out of the way and unadvertised.”
Gutlon, like many people who have sought out Leo Martin’s tour in recent years, became aware of the Forefathers monument after watching the documentary film “Monumental,” which stars Kirk Cameron, an actor best known for playing the role of Mike Seaver on the 1980s’ ABC sitcom “Growing Pains.”
In the 2012 movie, Cameron, who is a prominent evangelical, goes in search of “some kind of a map that will guide us back to the foundation of America’s success.” Like the Martins, he believes he finds that recipe contained in the National Monument to the Forefathers.
The Jenney Museum now features a poster of “Monumental” and glowing quotes from Cameron on the wall, praising the museum and Martin’s tour. (You can also buy, for $149.99, a 14-inch-tall replica of the monument that was commissioned by Cameron.)
Martin said that although the monument may remain largely anonymous in Massachusetts, “Monumental” has made it a destination for evangelicals who come from far and wide to hear his interpretation.
The monument was originally conceived in 1820 by the Pilgrim Society, which was founded that year to preserve Plymouth’s unique history. It would be years before the massive project really got going, as the society built the Pilgrim Hall Museum, which it continues to run (the monument was passed to the state in 2001). The Forefathers monument was originally conceived to be twice its current size and situated next to Plymouth Rock, but it was scaled down due to a number of factors — including funding problems because of the Civil War — and moved to Allerton Street to accommodate its epic size. The monument was designed by Boston architect Hammatt Billings, who also did the granite canopy over Plymouth Rock (since replaced) and the original illustrations for the groundbreaking antislavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Billings died before the monument was completed.
Martin’s tour covers much of these nuts and bolts, but his focus is on decoding the images for Christian allegories, and there is much to unpack in this colossus.
Faith, the 36-foot figure at its top, is surrounded by four smaller figures, each weighing nearly 20 tons. Engravings identify them as Morality, Law, Education, and Liberty. There are smaller figures on the sides of those, as well as four reliefs interpreting scenes from Pilgrim history, such as the signing of a treaty with the Native Americans and their famous, if unlikely, landing on Plymouth Rock. The monument also contains the names of the men on the Mayflower (the women are listed as “and wife”).
There are aspects of the monument that are unmistakably religious: Faith holds a Bible; Morality holds a stone tablet representing the 10 Commandments. And Martin is a convincing and knowledgeable orator with a practiced theatricality that delivers a compelling argument.
“They knew that you cannot have a civil government without a religious government,” he declared at one point, before pausing to let his words sink in.
“What happened here has nothing to do with buckles and turkeys,” he declared at another point, repeating a favorite line. “It has to do with Christian principles.”
After 45 minutes, the tour dispersed. A short time later, everything was back to normal at the National Monument to the Forefathers, which is to say there was not a single person around.