Sculptor’s Clan Not Kickin’ Over New Digs
If you happen to go searching for California Registered Historical Landmark No. 939, it’s easy to get confused. That’s because No. 939 was a tribute to the state’s folk art, and because officialdom deemed all of California a “historical overlay zone.” Ten distinct monuments bear this same number.
And it’s easy to get lost looking for San Fernando Valley’s own Landmark No. 939, given the location. I drove up and down the dusty roads of the Pierce College farm before finding Old Trapper’s Lodge.
Unlike Watts Towers, Simon Rodia’s famous creation that reaches for the heavens, the folk art of the late John Ehn is firmly rooted to the earth. These days, despite the name, there isn’t a lodge in sight--not since 1988, when the late John Ehn’s fanciful tribute to the Old West was moved from Ehn’s old Sun Valley motel to the Woodland Hills campus.
Perhaps you know about Old Trapper’s Lodge and perhaps you don’t. It’s been in the news, on and off, for several years. Yet visitors to the Pierce College farm are often stunned, pleasantly so, when they happen upon this larger-than-life, often whimsical collection of concrete sculptures depicting Old West men and women posed around a well-populated Boot Hill graveyard.
Here lies a corpse so fresh he isn’t buried yet. He’s smiling and has six toes on each massive foot. The headstone explains:
Big Foot Brown
Dirty Gerty Shot Him Down
Long Time No See
His right arm is reaching upward, as though stiffened by rigor mortis. On his sleeve is this invitation: “Shake my hand, girls, I ain’t been dead long.”
“Dad,” explains Rosemarie Farish, Ehn’s daughter, “had a rare sense of humor.”
By all accounts, John Ehn, who died in 1981 at age 84, was as colorful as his creations. He was a retired government trapper who’d had a career traveling the West and protecting cattle, sheep and other farm animals from predators before moving his family to Sun Valley and opening his motor lodge. The story goes that he commissioned an artist to create a sculpture, watched the man work and decided he could do just as well himself.
The man who resembled an aging Buffalo Bill with his buckskins and long gray hair and long gray goatee was, as the plaque explains, “a self-taught artist who wished to pass on a sense of the Old West, derived from personal experiences, myths, and tall tales. From 1951 to 1981, using his family as models, and incorporating memorabilia, the ‘Old Trapper’ followed his dreams and visions. . . . “
Consider “2-Gun Rose, the Kickin’ Queen,” a saloon lady sitting on a bench and showing a bit of thigh--with a derringer tucked in her garter. She resembles Ehn’s daughter Rosemarie, born nearly 59 years ago in a house trailer on the banks of Lake Michigan long before the vagabond Ehn family came West.
“I kicked on everything, including mom’s milk,” explains Rosemarie, now a grandmother who still lives in Sun Valley. “I was allergic to mama’s breast milk and cow milk, and so I was raised on goat milk. They had their own goat for me, and it traveled in the panel truck with us.”
The Ehns were a close clan, a fact the patriarch celebrated in his work. The “Miner 49er” resembles the artist’s son Clifford, and the miner’s yellow-haired daughter “Clementine” was inspired by the artist’s granddaughter, Judith. Seated by himself is “Lonesome George,” based on a son-in-law who was as gregarious as could be. “It was like calling a big man Tiny,” Farish explains.
Formed with cement on frames, constructed with iron rebar and chicken wire, not all of Ehn’s creations were whimsical. Here stands a stoic woman with a rifle, alongside a son and daughter, with a baby in her arms. The pedestal reads: “A memorial to Mrs. John Ehn Sr. and Mrs. John Ehn Jr., pioneer mothers. Sculpted by Old Trapper.”
Elsewhere is “Kidnap,” depicting a dark, bearded man carrying off a fair damsel, and “The Fight,” depicting the violent, bloody confrontation between one Pegleg Smith and Big Bear, an American Indian with a vibrant, multicolored Mohawk hairstyle. Big Bear is burying his tomahawk in Pegleg’s shoulder even as Pegleg thrusts a knife in Big Bear’s gut.
The gory scene, Farish explains, is a cautionary tale of Old West folklore passed along by her father. Pegleg and Big Bear, it seems, were fighting to the death over the ownership of a cow, leaving two families fatherless. “All the men had to do is set their differences aside and share the food,” Farish explains. “It’s a lesson about sharing and caring.”
Sharing and caring were the kind of values John Ehn passed on to his family. After Farish and his other heirs sold the old lodge site to the adjacent Burbank Airport in the mid-1980s, they searched for a new home for the trapper’s creations. Simi Valley--already the home of Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village, another Landmark No. 939--could have had this sculpture, but the school board said no. The Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, being organized before its groundbreaking, also declined the offer. “They said it was not in the vintage and character of art that they wanted,” Farish recalls.
Their loss was Pierce’s gain. In 1988, community college trustees accepted the donation. The Ehn family, Farish says, spent more than $40,000 to relocate and install the collection. The college, in turn, was supposed to provide the maintenance. Pleading poverty, the college has not kept that promise. So it’s been left to Ehn family and friends to repaint the weathering statuary themselves. It’s a labor of love, Farish says.
I was about to suggest that maybe the Autry might have a change of heart and provide a happier, more visible home. Or how about downtown Calabasas, eager to promote an Old West theme?
But Rosemarie Farish says she isn’t angry with the college, just disappointed.
“I don’t want to bad-mouth them,” she explained. “They gave them a home when no one else did.”
Scott Harris’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Readers may write to Harris at the Times Valley Edition, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth, CA 91311. Please include a phone number.
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