A Place of Solitude
The Ed Galloway Totem Pole Park rests about four miles off of Route 66 in Oklahoma’s rural Rogers County. The nearest major city, Tulsa, is located about fifty miles away. “It’s this nice, hilly drive with lots of nice mature trees,” Rhys Martin, President of the Oklahoma Route 66 Association, said of his most recent journey to the park. “Then suddenly, you crest over a hill and there’s this giant colorful totem pole poking out over the treetops. And if you’re not expecting it, it’s quite a surprise. It’s incredible, and it never gets old going out there and looking at it. I’m typically with someone who’s never been there before, so I get to relive the experience through their eyes.”
The park’s grassy lawn, leafy trees, and fourteen concrete sculptures — including the main totem pole — provide a place of tranquility for its visitors. There is a sensation of peace and ease and the mood is almost similar to a place of worship. But peaceful vibe aside, visitors are generally immediately drawn to the massive totem pole adjacent to the sleepy road. They stroll around its 54-foot base and catch a glimpse of the year “1948” inscribed and painted in red, with Native American busts carved directly above it and a lobster and lizard to the left and the right. Surrounding the totem pole are other smaller concrete sculptures and a small house where Ed did most of his work.
The Man Behind the Pole
Nathan Edward Galloway was born in a log cabin near south Springfield, Missouri, on February 18, 1880. As a teenager, he developed an interest in carving objects, initially whittling buttons for neighbors. After the eighth grade, Ed followed his father into the blacksmith trade until he abruptly enlisted in the military at the age of 21.
Ed’s grandfather on his paternal side, Captain Jesse Galloway, had been killed during the American Civil War in September 1861.
Ed’s grandfather on his maternal side, James D. Gideon, also served in the war. Whether his motivation was inspired by a family military tradition or boredom, Ed left for Joplin, Missouri, and enlisted in the U.S. Army on May 13, 1901.
Ed found himself at war with Muslim guerilla fighters in the southern Philippines — dubbed the Moros. These ferocious warriors donned menacing bright colors and carried edged weapons and wore body armor into battle. He arrived at Mindanao, the second largest island in the Philippines, with a detachment of the 28th Infantry Regiment in September 1902. Instead of seeing action right away, Ed and his comrades exchanged their rifles for shovels and axes and spent six months constructing a military road through the jungle from the port of Iligan to the northern shore of Lake Lanao at Camp Marahui to help pacify the Moros. After finishing the road, Ed and his comrades were involved in a series of engagements to suppress the Moro insurgency.
After being discharged in May 1904, Ed returned to Missouri a battle-weary soldier. He married a local girl named Villie Hooten in Springfield a month later and settled down in a number of odd jobs in the years following his military service. These included working as a miner, farmer, blacksmith and wagon maker.
Meanwhile, he continued to pursue his passion for wood carving.
David Anderson, the Co-Director of the Ed Galloway Totem Pole Park, describes how Ed became involved in a chance to enter his work in the Panama-Pacific International Exposition that was scheduled to be held in San Francisco during the winter of 1915: “At one time in Springfield, Missouri, one of the state legislatures saw some of his carvings, and he wanted him to go to the World’s Fair in 1915 to represent Missouri.”
But disaster struck Ed’s workshop in Springfield when it caught fire in July 1913, destroying most of his pieces and ruining this rare opportunity to showcase his creations.
“Just before that, there was a fire in his studio, and he lost most of them,” Anderson stated. “He was getting ready to take 200 or so. He was able to save a few of the big ones.”
Some of the most impressive sculptures that he lost included a nine-foot statue of a snake wrapped around a woman, life-size figures of a fisherman and a hunter, and a table carved with elaborate motifs. Ed managed to save a few pieces, including a lion in a cage carved from a single sycamore tree and a 29-foot sculpture of a snake coiled around a sycamore log, which he pushed out the shop’s window while the building was engulfed in flames and rolled down Jefferson Street to safety.
The snake and log sculpture was later displayed in the Getman’s Drug Store in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where it attracted the attention of Charles Page, founder of the Sand Springs Children’s Home, during the summer of 1914. “This man was a philanthropist; he was a rich man, and he had a home for single parents,” Anderson said. Page had established an orphanage and a sanctuary for widows west of Tulsa and asked Ed if he would be interested in working there. Ed accepted Page’s generous offer. “He hired Ed to teach those boys industrial arts, which was mainly building things out of wood.” The boys would go on to regard Ed as a father figure. In 1937, at age 57, Ed retired and moved with his wife Villie and adopted son Paul – who he adopted in 1918 – to settle on a plot of land that he had purchased between Foyil and Chelsea. Ed and Villie remained on this plot of land there for the rest of their lives living off Ed’s army pension and social security checks.
Ed’s Vision Becomes a Reality
Ed did not live out the rest of his days in relaxation. Sustaining himself on a diet of milk, cereal and quinine, Ed went to work for twelve hours a day, seven days a week on various sculpting projects over the next twenty-five years. He began his most imposing sculpture, a totem pole, in 1937. Sporting a dirty wool hat and faded khaki shorts, the native Missourian began building it from the ground up, starting with a large concrete turtle as its base. “He would build it about ten feet a year,” Anderson said.
He made all his equipment and tools and did not buy any materials. He used scrap wire, metal fragments and boulders that he got for free, to build the infrastructure, and then coated the outer layer with cement mixed with sand that he retrieved from a nearby creek. He then painted the exterior in over eighteen vibrant colors. “He would etch into the concrete pictures of Native American- type icons,” Anderson said. “There are about 200 on that large totem pole.” These included four nine-foot Indian figures near the very top — representing the Apache, Sioux, Nez Perce and Comanche tribes. Ed also incorporated carvings influenced by Southeast Asian art, picked up while he was in the military overseas.
It is estimated that Ed used twenty-eight tons of cement, six tons of steel and 100 tons of sand to complete the massive totem pole in 1948. “It took him eleven years to do this thing, because he kind of just did it at his own pace,” Martin stated. “It’s very lovingly made. Eleven years is a long time to dedicate to build a single item.”
Ed did not hold a celebration when he finished. Instead, he continued to work on other projects, building a little park around the main attraction. He added a picnic table and thirteen other smaller concrete sculptures. Ville grew tired of Ed’s carvings cluttering her home and visitors trekking in to see them, so she insisted that her husband store them somewhere else, causing Ed to build a workshop on the grounds. The eleven-sided building — also called the “Hogan” since it looked like a traditional Navajo home— was dubbed the “Fiddle House” because on the back-wall Ed hung around 300 fiddles that he carved using different types of wood. “Some of those boys ended up in WWII, all over the country,” Anderson stated of his former students from the Sand Springs Children’s Home. “They would ship pieces of wood back to Ed and he would build fiddles out of that.” Ed also carved twenty-six wooden portraits of the U.S. Presidents from George Washington to John F. Kennedy, as well as frames and chairs, which were also on display to the public.
Word spread of Ed Galloway’s Totem Pole Park, and people began to visit the site. By 1962, hundreds were visiting this attraction each weekend. Despite its growing popularity, Ed refused to charge admission to the park. “I like for them to stop and talk and enjoy seeing it,” he reasoned. “That’s worth more than money.”
John Wooley, author of Ed Galloway’s Totem Pole Park, grew up in nearby Chelsea and remembered visiting the site as a boy. He had the chance to meet the enigmatic Galloway when he picnicked there with his mother and brother:
“I remember very well, he had a jar for change - he would never ask anybody for anything - and it had something on it about helping to keep the electricity on and people could throw change in there if they wanted to. But mostly, he just sat there and held court. And he was like a mythical figure to those of us growing up around here. Really, he is still like a mythical figure to me.”
All these years later, Wooley is most enamored with Ed’s perseverance: “Ideas are a dime dozen; execution is what matters,” he declared. “Many people may have had grandiose ideas, but very few people ever executed them. And he executed his. He was willing to do whatever it took to turn his vision into reality.”
The great mystery surrounding the park is why Ed chose to construct the totem pole. Some cited his love for the Native Americans or Oklahoma heritage, but as stated by Martin, “No one really knows. He [Ed] was kind of cryptic about it. For me, it was just a way for him to continue his love of crafting and his love of carving and putting it into something that might last a little longer than a piece of wood that’s more susceptible to the elements.” Anderson attributed it to Ed being a workaholic. “I think he had to occupy his artistic ability. I think he just wanted to have something for people to enjoy.”
Ed’s Wonderland Threatened with Extinction
Ed Galloway passed away from cancer in November 1962 at the age of 82. Two years before, Villie had passed away at the age of 76. She died a month before their fifty-sixth wedding anniversary. Before he died, Paul warned his father that he should remove the fiddles and other trinkets from the grounds to prevent them from being stolen. Ed, being the selfless man he was, responded, “Son, maybe those folks need these things more than we do.” And as Paul Galloway feared, his father’s fiddle house was ransacked around 1970 and most of his fiddles and sculptures were stolen.
Wooley, who had moved away from the area as an adult, returned to Foyil with his wife in 1979. He recalled the anguish he felt when he returned to the broken down and neglected place he had enjoyed growing up: “When I went over there, it was in terrible shape. People had come through and camped inside the totem pole, and there was broken glass, and it smelled like a bar, and it was nasty. Pigeons had roosted in the top of it and droppings were all over. The glass was smashed out of the hogan and the fiddles had been stolen.”
Paul Galloway, who worked as maintenance electrician at Douglas Aircraft Co., and his wife, Joy, tried to maintain it as best as they could: “People just tear it apart,” Joy reported in an interview in the Tulsa World. “They throw rocks at the windows, throw trash on the property. We used to mow and have trash cans there, but we don’t get any support in trying to keep it up and we are too old to do it anymore.”
Paul died in May 1982 at the age of 65, leaving Joy to look after his father’s deteriorating park.
Saving Ed’s Legacy
In 1988, The Kansas Grassroots Art Association (KGAA) of Lucas, Kansas — dedicated to preserving, documenting and promoting grassroots art — luckily stepped in to save the property. A year later, the land was acquired by the Rogers County Historical Society. “When the Grassroots took it over is when things really started happening,” Wooley recalled. “By the time the Kansas Grassroots Association got their hands on the project, I think it had been close to twenty plus years since the structure has been touched,” Erin Turner, the artist and preservationist now involved in the most recent restoration effort of the totem pole, declared. “Most of the paint had deteriorated to such a degree that you couldn’t really find the same pigment.”
The KGAA meticulously compared paint chips located inside the fiddle house to match those to the faded colors on the totem pole. They also worked with local paint companies that operated during Ed’s lifetime to locate the original colors he may have used. They successfully completed the rehabilitation after sixteen years — five more years than it took Ed to originally construct it. Joy Galloway lived to see its rehabilitation, living to the age of 91 and passing away in June 2008.
The totem pole is currently undergoing another restoration. The sun has faded the paint and caused it to chip since the KGAA completed its revival roughly two decades before. Erin Turner became involved in this second restoration effort about four years ago. “Instead of restoring it to its original material, we went with a silicate-based paint which is not going to fade over time,” Erin said.
The benefit of using this type of paint is that it will last much longer and create a vapor-permeable barrier. “Concrete is very porous, so moisture is a thing. Silicate lets vapors through, while latex is just a plastic layer on top.”
Turner spent two summers painting the totem pole. During the first summer, she tackled the middle section. The second summer, she completed the top half. Turner will hopefully embark on the last section, around the base, if funding permits. Turner explained how she felt a deep connection to Ed when restoring the totem pole: “At the bottom, which Ed started working on when he was younger, is very polished and detail-oriented. [But] as you get to the top, you can see his hands getting older, which I thought was so beautiful, to see him aging as he is putting this together.”
A True Roadside Attraction
Martin recalled the English-based graffiti artist Banksy’s quote, “…they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.” He associated this same quote to Ed Galloway, who may have passed away, but who lives on through his artwork. For Martin, preserving Ed’s memory is just as important as protecting the totem poles. But as long as the totem poles continue to soar over Foyil’s horizon, Ed Galloway will continue to impress visitors. “My hope, as an Oklahoman,” Martin declared, “is that people will come to Totem Pole Park, learn about it, learn about Ed, and then take the lesson of his life and apply it somehow to their own.”
Ed wanted to bring people joy through his art. Fortunately, the Ed Galloway Totem Pole Park is still able to do so every day. Ed would be humbled to know that Martin, Turner, Anderson, and many others still appreciate his vision and have worked to preserve the park so that it can still serve as a sanctuary and paradise to all visitors.