From the Colonel’s Desk: “What might have been”—scenic views and a deer in the headlights

The Cumberland Gap, scene of Kentucky’s “America the Beautiful” quarter of 2016. (Photograph courtesy of Jeffery L. Willis, Shutterstock.)

Last week we explored Kentucky’s 2016 Cumberland Gap quarter dollar, part of the United States Mint’s “America the Beautiful” coin program.

Here we’ll take a look at “What Might Have Been”—the other designs considered for this coin, and what the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee had to say about them.

The CCAC is a public body authorized by Congress to advise the secretary of the Treasury on American coin and medal designs. Its 11 members represent coin collectors and non-collectors alike. Some are nominated by congressional leadership (selected by both the minority and majority parties). The committee has positions for a historian, a numismatic curator, a specialist in sculpture or medallic arts, and a numismatist. Three members are appointed specifically to represent the general public.

Artists for the United States Mint (including members of its Artistic Infusion Program) crafted a number of designs for Kentucky’s 2016 “Cumberland Gap” quarter. The Mint’s program managers presented five designs to the CCAC for its public review on September 23, 2014.

Carol Borneman, the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park’s chief of interpretation, joined the CCAC meeting by phone. She said, “We were simply wowed by all of the designs.”

These are the five designs presented to the Committee:

Hover to zoom.

Reverse 01 featured a series of footprints symbolizing the journey through the Cumberland Gap—a path used first by animals, then by Native Americans, frontiersmen, and eventually hundreds of pioneers as a gateway through the Cumberland Mountains. The inscription reads “First Doorway to the West.”

Reverse 02 featured a frontiersman gazing across the mountains to the west. The Mint noted that many pioneers used the Cumberland Gap on their journey into the western frontiers of Kentucky and Tennessee. This design was the park’s first preference.

Reverse 03 showed human footprints and wildlife tracks traveling around Indian Rock, a large isolated boulder that became a landmark in the Cumberland Gap—”a billboard of sorts,” as the Mint put it, along the Dixie Highway, which historically led travelers through the Gap. Indian Rock has scratches and messages left by settlers passing through the area. Over the years it was a spot from which people were ambushed, a waylaying station, and a grave marker. Reverse 03 was the park’s third preference among the candidate designs.

(There was no Reverse 04 presented to the Committee.) Reverse 05 showcased a view from Pinnacle Overlook—a position located in Virginia, but which looks into Kentucky, in the direction observed by the figure in the foreground. Fern Lake is seen in the background.

Reverse 06 featured a white-tailed deer with the Cumberland Gap in the background. This was the park’s second preferred design. It was also the design the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts recommended. (The CFA and the CCAC are the two groups that make formal recommendations to the secretary of the Treasury on coin and medal designs.)

The Committee’s two-day agenda included reviewing a large number of programs—First Spouse gold coins, various Congressional Gold Medals, platinum bullion coins, several other 2016 America the Beautiful quarters, and a proposed art-medal program. With so many topics to review, the Committee focused its discussion on the most promising designs instead of analyzing each one in depth.

For the Cumberland Gap quarter, Chairman Gary Marks, through a voice vote, quickly narrowed the Committee’s discussion to designs 02, 03, and 06. Committee members expressed little interest in designs 01 and 05.

Greg Weinman, the Mint’s senior legal counsel and liaison to the CCAC, who was present when the Treasury Department was selecting the sites to be honored in the America the Beautiful quarters, gave some background on the law authorizing them: “The legislation says the designs must be emblematic of the national sites. Early on, we interpreted that fairly broadly of what ‘emblematic of a national site’ means. . . . There was always a concern that when you’re featuring many forests and many parks that look alike, you’re looking for things you can grasp onto, like iconic images. We thought years in advance, ‘Would there be an animal we might be able to feature, would there be a person theoretically associated with it that could be featured?’ So we didn’t have 50 rivers, et cetera.”

The Committee understood the challenge involved. Dr. Michael Bugeja, the CCAC’s specialist numismatist, urged against “postcard” depictions on the America the Beautiful quarters. “The dominant medium of the state parks for over a century now has been the postcard,” he said. “In Cumberland, you have three of five [designs that resemble postcards]. . . . It’s very interesting to me because it suggests that our artists need to look deeper when depicting the state parks. For instance, I know some of the parks have state flags. You might want to look and see what the images are there. If [a design] looks like a postcard, if you could buy a postcard, if you can imagine it as a postcard, it should be eliminated. We already have postcards.”

Here are some more comments from the Committee’s discussion of the Cumberland Gap design portfolio:

Design 02: Frontiersman Gazing West

Heidi Wastweet, medallic sculptor: “Although I like this design, the outline of the Gap itself behind the character is a bit hidden. It would have been better if that were a little sharper, more distinct, and distilled down to its character. This might be the best of the group.”

Robert Hoge, numismatic curator: “For Cumberland Gap . . . these are a disappointment to me. I kind of would prefer number 2, where you see the padre carrying the rifle. He’s not someone that’s shooting that rifle, because he has no powder flask, for one thing, and he doesn’t have much in the way of rifle equipment. Also, his garments, I’m sure, would have been fringed if he were an actual frontiersman, because that was always done because of water and moisture.”

Donald Scarinci, congressional appointment: “I’m very concerned about [putting people on the coins]. I don’t think that is what we are supposed to be doing with this particular series. I think we are supposed to be illustrating the park land and the beauty of nature and not historical events and people. I really have a problem going with number 2 on this. . . .”

Michael Bugeja, numismatic specialist: “Number 2 is my hands-on favorite.”

Dr. Herman Viola, the Committee’s historian, commented on the historical accuracy of the frontiersman’s presentation (as we noted in last week’s “From the Colonel’s Desk” column): “His outfit seems pretty good. The Kentucky rifle he holds is pretty good. It looks like 1780s vintage. That’s the way they dressed, the kind of farmer’s hat, and he has a long hunter’s coat on, and often they were made with wool, not always with buckskin.”

Design 03: Tracks at Indian Rock

Heidi Wastweet: “For Cumberland Gap, we culled out design number 1 but I want to reference it in relation to design number 3. If we had something in between these two designs, then we would have a winner. Design 1 is too simplistic and design 3 is too complex. The road is too perfect. It looks like it was constructed, instead of a path. It has too much going on, too much detail. It’s not symbolic enough. Very close, but no cigar.”

Erik Jansen, representative of the general public: “3 is just too busy. It is a picture in metal. I won’t vote for a picture in metal. Sorry.”

Jeanne: “I like the concept of number 3 with the Indian Rock. I don’t care much for the footpaths there. I think it is distracting. If the rock were a little bigger in the foreground, it would have been better.”

Donald Scarinci: “Number 3, which at least is an important feature of the park. . . . I think I’m really inclined to give 3 all of my support and request that if we vote on 3, that we can make a motion to really redo this a bit along the lines of what some people have said with respect to the prominence of the rock.”

(Ms. Borneman, the park’s chief of interpretation, was asked by Mr. Scarinci about how much prominence the park gives to Indian Rock in its literature. She replied, “If you actually hike into the Gap, you will see that rock. You know, not that many people really hike into the Gap itself. They look at the Gap from Pinnacle Overlook, and they’re peering down into it. Unless a person were actually to hike into the Gap, they would not understand the significance of Indian Rock. . . . We have mentioned it in some of our publications, but it is not that pivotal a point.”)

Design 06

Mike Moran, congressionally appointed: “On Cumberland Gap, at this point I’m going toward number 6. The reason for that is very simple: Every red-blooded Eastern Kentuckian in particular needs to have a 10-point buck in their pocket. Seriously, it’s a nice design. It does show the Gap and it does show the head of the deer. We have not done a deer yet in this new series. It will be awfully popular in Eastern Kentucky.”

Donald Scarinci: “Cumberland Gap is a struggle. Number 6 is the classic deer in the headlights.”

Jeanne Stevens-Sollman, representative of the general public: “I wish the artist that rendered this buck had really looked at a buck and understood that the front legs and rear legs should be the same length. You know, the muscular part of that leg is so incorrect. If this piece is chosen, I would recommend that we go back and look at some good examples of bucks. This is not a good one. . . . I love the fact that this drawing does give us the river and the Gap beyond the buck. That is kind of an interesting concept.”

Heidi Wastweet: “I have a very important point on this. As a sculptor of coins for 27 years, I’ve tried a number of times to sculpt a muzzled animal facing straight on. No matter how skilled a sculptor you are, this will always look like a pig. It looks fine in the drawing. But please understand, when this is reduced to thousands of an inch in depth, it will not look like this drawing.”

Gary Marks, chairman, and representative of the general public: “If you look at number 6, I agree with some of the comments, and particularly Jeanne’s comments are very impactful for me because I know a lot of her artwork deals with animals. I can tell—and I’m not an expert on sculpting of animals—I can tell, myself, the anatomy here is challenged. . . . We have a fairly heavy black line that attempts to outline this buck, but you know what? When that becomes a silver-colored coin, there is no line there. What happens is it bleeds into the background and especially in the collector version of this, there is not going to be a lot of definition. It’s not going to be something that is going to present well. The things that will present the best on here are going to be the antlers, because you are going to have some negative space behind it. I think we can do better, and I think we can do better with number 2.”

Mary Lannin, congressionally appointed: “I’ve seen enough deer in my lifetime that I don’t necessarily need to see one on a coin.”

Michael Bugeja: “Number 6 really concerns me. I’m concerned not only about the deer but it is almost a hunter’s stamp, because the deer takes precedence over Cumberland Gap. You don’t see this, for instance, in Shawnee, where the red-tailed hawk doesn’t taken prominence over the scenery. . . . You can see a deer like that in West Virginia, in Kentucky, in Iowa, although not so much with the hills, but you could certainly see that in the Black Hills of South Dakota, which is not too far. It is not unique to the Cumberland Gap.”

The Committee’s recommendation, after review and discussion, was a strong endorsement of Design 02. It earned 26 of 33 possible points in the Committee’s voting. When the dust settled, designs 03 and 06 each received only 4 points.

April Stafford, in the Mint’s office of design management, shared some feedback from the liaisons involved in the CCAC’s September 2014 review. “A couple of our liaisons that participated in this meeting ask that I convey their gratitude to this Committee for the work that you do,” she said. “They acknowledged that it’s no easy task, especially, for example, in the ‘America the Beautiful’ program, to distill the subject matter down into a coin design. And they said that they really respect the seriousness with which you approach that work. One of them actually noted that her father, who is an avid coin collector, feels that it’s a tremendous honor for his daughter to be part of that process with you, and he said he thinks it’s the coolest thing that she’s ever worked on.”

Dennis Tucker, Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels, is the publisher of Whitman Publishing, a leading producer of storage and display supplies, reference books, and other resources for collectors and hobbyists. He was commissioned a Kentucky Colonel in March 2021 for his career in book publishing and his promotion of the Bluegrass State’s status as an important subject in numismatics. His column “From the Colonel’s Desk” explores the Commonwealth’s diverse connections to American coins, tokens, medals, paper money, private currency, and related artifacts.

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