In the interior of Pierce College in Woodland Hills, California, there is a fascinating collection of statues, fake tombstones and other examples of folk art. These are what remain of Old Trapper’s Lodge. It took Neek and me a long time driving around to find it, but hidden in a more rural section of the college where a rooster was crowing loudly, we finally stumbled onto it.
Entering the display, two things caught my attention right away. One was the historical plaque for California Registered Historical Landmark #939. This told the story of John Ehn (1897-1981), who was a trapper before moving to California, who opened a motel near the Burbank airport at Arvilla Avenue and San Fernando Road called the Old Trapper’s Lodge in 1941. To attract business, this self-taught artist (according to unverified sources, he learned by watching Knott’s Berry Farm artist Claude Bell, who went on to build the Cabazon dinosaurs featured in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, and supposedly after hiring Bell to build the initial sculpture, Ehn built the rest himself) in 1951 began creating sculptures using family members as models. The second thing that caught my attention was a prominent sculpture called Lonesome George. There was a space on the bench where I sat next to him, but he wouldn’t let on as to why he was lonesome.
The whole arrangement of humorous tombstones was a Wild West creation that Ehn called Boot Hill. There were so many that made us literally laugh out loud!
It definitely evoked the feelings of some of the Old West memorabilia that gives Knott’s Berry Farm its character. One thing Neek and I noticed with it being such a cloudy day is that with it being located in such a secluded area, you can get the sensation that you’ve stumbled across something lost from the past!
Though some of the sculptures may not seem very racially or culturally sensitive now, they do reflect the culture of the 50s as far as the TV perspective of the Old West and the tall tales they propagated. Ehn obviously loved those tall tales as expressed in the sculpture of Peg Leg Smith battling Big Bear. They are all really fantastic examples of 20th century folk art. Some of them are somewhat deteriorating – we do hope that more restoration and care will be given to them.
Old Trapper John Ehn was a handsome man. At least his statue is – standing tall and straight like Fess Parker (or Buddy Ebsen?) as Davey Crockett ready to wrestle a bear in the American Frontier. Because of a spinal inflammation that he developed while trapping alligators and snakes in Florida, he set off for a drier climate in California (Sun Valley that is) and opened up a motel. The motel was called “The Old Trapper’s Lodge Motel” and was filled with relics and souvenirs of his life as a trapper.
There is a story that John had originally hired Claude Bell (Knott’s Berry Farm artist and creator of the Cabazon/Pee Wee Adventure dinosaurs near Palm Springs) to make a statue of himself for the motel, but after about three days, he felt he could do it by himself and took over. There is no record that this actually happened but seeing the statutes, it’s hard not to believe that John Ehn was at least inspired by Claude Bell’s work.
The Old Trapper began creating the statues in 1950’s until his death in 1981. Although the lodge was designated a California Historic Landmark in 1985 the building was destroyed as a result of the expansion of Burbank Airport. Luckily, the statutes and the Boot Hill Cemetery tombstones were moved to Pierce College where they now reside.
I’m pretty grateful that the statues exist. There’s a lot of folk art that is disappearing due to neglect and it’s good to see that these have survived (at least for now). They are so fun to visit in their tongue and cheek depictions of a fictional west. Some of the statues wouldn’t pass the politically correct test today, but I tried to keep in mind that they were built in the 1950’s and have a pretty ridiculous feel to them.
Boot Hill was especially hilarious and you can’t help laughing at some of the strange descriptions of who was supposedly buried there. This is definitely a Knott’s inspired attraction. There is one thing that puzzles me and that is his use of “grotesques” at the base of some of his statutes. I wonder why he created those images. They are beautiful in their ugliness.
Anyways, Lex and I had a great time exploring the place and hearing the rooster crow (the Animal Science Building was next door). Hope you enjoyed it too.