The son of Danish immigrants, Gutzon Borglum was born in 1867 in St. Charles in what was then Idaho Territory. Borglum was a child of Mormon polygamy. His father, Jens Møller Haugaard Børglum (1839–1909), came from the village of Børglum in northwestern Denmark. He had two wives when he lived in Idaho: Gutzon's mother, Christina Mikkelsen Børglum (1847–1871), and her sister Ida, who was Jens's first wife.
Ivan Houser, father of John Sherrill Houser, was assistant sculptor to Gutzon Borglum in the early years of carving; he began working with Borglum shortly after the inception of the monument and was with Borglum for a total of seven years. When Houser left Gutzon to devote his talents to his own work, Gutzon's son, Lincoln, took over as Assistant-Sculptor to his father.
Borglum was an active member of the Ancient Free and Accepted Masons (the Freemasons), raised in Howard Lodge #35, New York City, on June 10, 1904, and serving as its Worshipful Master 1910–11. In 1915, he was appointed Grand Representative of the Grand Lodge of Denmark near the Grand Lodge of New York. He received his Scottish Rite Degrees in the New York City Consistory on October 25, 1907.
Borglum was initially involved in the carving of Stone Mountain in Georgia. Borglum's nativist stances made him seem an ideologically sympathetic choice to carve a memorial to heroes of the Confederate States of America, planned for Stone Mountain, Georgia. In 1915, coinciding with the Klan-glorifying, highly successful The Birth of a Nation, he was approached by the United Daughters of the Confederacy with a project for sculpting a 20-foot (6 m) high bust of General Robert E. Lee on the mountain's 800-foot (240 m) rockface. Borglum accepted, but told the committee, "Ladies, a twenty-foot head of Lee on that mountainside would look like a postage stamp on a barn door."
Borglum's ideas eventually evolved into a high-relief frieze of Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson riding around the mountain, followed by a legion of artillery troops. Borglum agreed to include a Ku Klux Klan altar in his plans for the memorial to acknowledge a request of Helen Plane in 1915, who wrote to him: "I feel it is due to the KKK that saved us from Negro domination and carpetbag rule, that it be immortalized on Stone Mountain".
After a delay caused by World War I, Borglum and the newly chartered Stone Mountain Confederate Monumental Association set to work on this monument, the largest ever attempted. Many difficulties slowed progress, some because of the sheer scale involved. After finishing the detailed model of the carving, Borglum was unable to trace the figures onto the massive area on which he was working, until he developed a gigantic magic lantern to project the image onto the side of the mountain.
Carving officially began on June 23, 1923, with Borglum making the first cut. At Stone Mountain he developed sympathetic connections with the reorganized Ku Klux Klan, who were major financial backers of the monument. Lee's head was unveiled on Lee's birthday January 19, 1924, to a large crowd, but soon thereafter Borglum was increasingly at odds with the officials of the organization. His domineering, perfectionist, authoritarian manner brought tensions to such a point that in March 1925 Borglum smashed his clay and plaster models. He left Georgia permanently, his tenure with the organization over. None of his work remains, as it was all blasted off the mountain's face for the work of Borglum's replacement Henry Augustus Lukeman. In his abortive attempt however, Borglum had developed the necessary techniques for sculpting on a gigantic scale that made Mount Rushmore possible.
Borglum was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. He was one of the six knights who sat on the Imperial Koncilium in 1923, which transferred leadership of the Ku Klux Klan from Imperial Wizard Colonel Simmons to Imperial Wizard Hiram Evans. In 1925, having only completed the head of Robert E. Lee, Borglum was dismissed from the Stone Mountain project, with some holding that it came about due to infighting within the KKK, with Borglum involved in the strife. Later, he stated "I am not a member of the Kloncilium, nor a knight of the KKK," but Howard Shaff and Audrey Karl Shaff add that "that was for public consumption." The museum at Mount Rushmore displays a letter to Borglum from D.C. Stephenson, the infamous Klan Grand Dragon who later was convicted of the rape and murder of Madge Oberholtzer. The 8x10 foot portrait contains the inscription "To my good friend Gutzon Borglum, with the greatest respect." Correspondence from Borglum to Stephenson during the 1920s detailed a deep racist conviction in Nordic moral superiority and strict immigration policies.>>
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