Utah lawmaker drafting bill to remove statue of TV inventor Philo Farnsworth from U.S. Capitol

Adam Gardiner, R-West Jordan, believes statue of Martha Hughes Cannon, first woman state senator, would be more fitting symbol for Beehive State.

(Thomas Burr | The Salt Lake Tribune) A statue of Brigham Young, who led the Mormon pioneers to the Salt Lake Valley, is one of two statues of Utahns in the U.S. Capitol. The other pays tribute to Philo T. Farnsworth.

When he was a young intern for Congressman Rob Bishop in Washington, D.C., Adam Gardiner would lead visitors through the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol, where two figures of historical significance represent each state.

Brigham Young, the larger-than-life Mormon leader who led pioneers to the Salt Lake Valley and established it as a crucial crossroads in the Western U.S., is the subject of Utah’s first statue. But Gardiner never felt satisfied when he would walk people to the statute of Philo T. Farnsworth, the Utah-born man who pioneered television technology.

“Philo T. Farnsworth was never an exciting Utah story to me,” Gardiner said, noting that Farnsworth spent much of his life in Idaho. “I actually spoke with Congressman Bishop and said, ‘Isn’t there someone from Utah that would be better represented in the Capitol?’”

“Here‘s Philo Farnsworth and he’s holding a sausage.”<br>— Rep. Rob Bishop (as recalled by his former aide Adam Gardiner)<br>

The former intern, now a state legislator, says the answer to that question is a resounding “yes,” and he’s working on drafting a bill that would swap Farnsworth’s statue with one of Martha Hughes Cannon, which now sits outside the Utah state Capitol. Cannon is notable as the first woman in the country elected to a state Senate seat.

For Gardiner, it’s not just Farnsworth’s ties to Idaho that make him a mediocre symbol for Utah.

“When I would go on tours with Congressman Bishop and he was leading the tours, he would always say, ‘And here’s Philo Farnsworth and he’s holding a sausage’ and that was all he would say,” Gardiner recalled. “Hardly anyone could correct him because no one knew who this person was.”

Many may also be unfamiliar with the story of Cannon, a Mormon pioneer who earned a medical degree from the University of Michigan. But Gardiner said the polygamous wife and suffragette, who defeated her own husband when she won her state Senate seat in 1896, would represent a key piece of Utah’s history on D.C.’s national stage.

An 8-foot-tall bronze statute of Cannon was erected in the Utah state Capitol in 1996 and about a decade later was moved outside into the Capitol plaza, where it stands today.

Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo Current and former women Utah legislators pose for a photograph with the Martha Hughes Cannon statue outside the state Capitol in Salt Lake City, Wednesday August 15, 2012. The women gathered at the Capitol for a screening of the KUED documentary on Cannon, the first women state senator in the United States. In the photo are (front row) Peggy Wallace, Beverly White, Karen Shepherd, Olene Walker, Becky Lockhart, Margaret Dayton, Chris Fox Finlinson, Carol Spackman Moss, Paula Julander, Alicia Suazo and Karen Morgan. (Back row) Nancy Lyon, Carlene Walker, Patrice Arent, Lou Shurtliff, Trisha Beck, Rhonda Menlove, Sheryl Allen, Merlynn Newbold, Becky Edwards, Marie Poulson, Jennifer Seelig, Jackie Biskupski, Christine Watkins, Karen Mayne, Rebecca Chavez Houck, Darlene Gubler and Pat Jones.

“What I would like to see happen is for the Martha Hughes Cannon statue to be moved into the U.S. Capitol on the anniversary of the 19th Amendment in August 2020,” Gardiner said. “I think it would be cool to show that Utah as a state — as a territory — granted women suffrage 40 or 50 years before the federal government recognized it.”

Gardiner said he’s received positive feedback about the proposal so far. Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, will be sponsoring the bill in the Senate and may be taking the lead on it if Gardiner, who is running to be interim Salt Lake County recorder, wins the full-time post later this month.

Weiler said he’s had an interest in replacing Farnsworth’s statue for several years, spurred by tours he’s led of Utah’s Capitol.

“He‘s been sufficiently honored and I think it’s time for someone else to have the spotlight.”<br>— Utah Sen. Todd Weiler.<br>

“I’m surprised at how many Utahns — how many of my constituents and others — are unaware that Utah has that great legacy with [Cannon],” Weiler said. “It’s such a great story.”

There are two requirements for a state to replace one of its stone structures in D.C.’s National Statuary Hall Collection: the Legislature must adopt a resolution for replacement signed by the governor and the statue being replaced must have been displayed in the Capitol for at least 10 years. 

Farnsworth’s statue has been on display since 1990 — 40 years after Young’s statue was placed in the nation’s Capitol. At the time the Legislature selected Farnsworth to represent the state in 1987, Utah was one of six states that had only one statute in D.C. 

(Thomas Burr | The Salt Lake Tribune) A statue of Brigham Young, who led the Mormon pioneers to the Salt Lake Valley, is one of two statues of Utahns in the U.S. Capitol. The other pays tribute to Philo T. Farnsworth.

There was no real effort to commission another Utah statue, so Farnsworth became Utah’s choice largely due to heavy lobbying by schoolchildren from Ridgecrest Elementary School in Cottonwood Heights, according to an archived article from the Deseret News.

Though the state approved the statue, the Legislature didn’t fund the $250,000 members estimated at the time that the statue would cost. Rather, the bill was paid by private donors.

Weiler and Gardiner said their plan, if approved, would also fund the endeavor without taxpayer money. They expect to see support from both sides of the aisle, and Weiler said the only ones he believes might oppose the move would be Farnsworth’s family.

“I think Philo’s descendants are not going to like it,” Weiler said. “They’re very proud of him and that’s something that I’m sure that they’re going to see as somehow disparaging him, but that won’t be my focus. I think he’s been sufficiently honored and I think it’s time for someone else to have the spotlight.”


Twitter: @tstevens95