The Spirit of Totem Pole Park

by Tim Brown


artificer n. 1. a skilled craftsman 2. a clever or inventive designer 3. (Military) a serviceman trained in mechanics.

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With smoke billowing into his downtown Springfield, Missouri studio, Ed Galloway had to act fast. He pushed a large walnut sculpture of a giant snake coiled around a tree through a plate glass window and rolled it like a log down the street to safety. When he got back to the building, bystanders had gathered. He looked past them into the studio, to a series of monumental sculptures commissioned by the state of Missouri for the upcoming 1915 San Francisco World Fair. He knew there wasn’t enough time to save them. He ran into the studio one last time and rolled a smaller carving—this one of a caged lion—out onto South Jefferson Street. Then he turned to watch the rest of his work go up in flames.

Later, after finding a place for the few things he’d salvaged, Galloway went back to the site of the fire, stood on a nearby stump, and sold postcards of his lost sculptures in the shadow of the wreckage. For a year’s worth of work, and the promise of unprecedented exposure from the World’s Fair, all Galloway now had to show for his efforts was $15 cash. After a few more failed attempts at rebuilding his life in Missouri, he took what little he had and, with his wife Villa, made for Oklahoma.

Seldom in his life had Nathan Edward Galloway encountered a problem that he couldn’t build, carve, or toil his way out of. He was born in 1880 in Stone County, Missouri, where he learned to fashion buttons out of wood and mother of pearl to bolster the family budget. While serving in the Army during and after the Spanish–American War, he’d earned the title of “Artificer” without any formal training. [1] Galloway was seemingly a man who could build or fix anything: he could shoe a horse on the fly, fashion a band saw from an old washing machine, tap a well with a wooden pole, and catch a hundred fish without bait or hook. This is not the infamous noodling or hand fishing; light fishing is done at night, usually on a river. A lantern is hung on the end of the boat, attracting flying insects. Fish jump to catch them in the air and land onboard. Galloway was a frontiersman who could turn the uncertainties of the future into the opportunities of the present.

Galloway had moved his one log-like sculpture—road gravel still embedded in it from the fiery rescue—to a display window at the Getman drug store in downtown Tulsa, where oil tycoon and philanthropist Charles Page noticed it. Page was establishing a home for orphans in Sand Springs, the town he founded in 1908, and needed a builder and teacher to run the mechanical arts program there. It was the break Galloway was looking for, a job that would provide stability for the rest of his working life, and allow him to save money to buy the land where he would start his crowning artistic achievement: Totem Pole Park.

In 1937, after Galloway had retired to a home that he had built in Foyil, he famously said he wanted to “get independent” with something, a venture, ostensibly a roadside attraction. He spent every waking moment his first decade building the first and most iconic structure of the park, which was the totem pole itself. Rising from back of a giant tortoise that looked down on the hilly Northeast Oklahoma countryside to the north, the structure is built of scrap metal and sandstone carried from a nearby creek and skinned with painted concrete. Calling it a totem pole is in itself a misnomer, since the structure itself is much more like a teepee in construction, with six successively smaller stacked compartments reaching an ultimate height of over 90 feet, the largest of its kind when it was completed in 1948. By the time of his death 14 years later, Galloway had constructed a total of 15 stand-alone structures on the one-acre plot. In the winter, when outdoor work was temporarily suspended, Galloway filled his days making inlaid pictures and fiddles from exotic wood brought to him from all over by visitors to the park, many of whom traveled the world with the armed forces.

Totem Pole Park was the culmination of his resourceful life on the cheap and his brilliant engineering on a shoestring budget. The sandstone rocks used for the base were from a nearby creek and hauled up to the property by students from the Charles Page school who came out for camping weekends. The metal that provided the armature for his sculptures came from scrap heaps or generous neighbors. The totem pole was colored in paint store rejects. Bags of cement would be bought one at a time to mix in small batches, one bucket at a time. A neighbor recalled that Galloway mostly subsisted on Cheerios during the later years of his life because all of his meager military pension money went towards the building of the park.

If to build a roadside monument is to embark on a business venture intent on earning money, then Galloway was an unqualified failure. He never charged a single visitor admission, a park policy that survives to this day. But if building a monument to Native Americans is done in the hope of attracting people, making friends [2], and anchoring a community, then nobody has ever done it better than Ed Galloway. Totem Pole Park was the first property in his farm community to be wired for electricity, and it became the de facto meeting place for town celebrations. Some locals believe that the small highway that runs by the park on its way to and from Grand Lake was paved decades before it would have been if the park hadn’t been there. Spectacles like the Totem Pole tend to either alienate or galvanize the community in which they reside. Samuel Dinsmoor, builder of the Garden of Eden in Lucas, Kansas was a charismatic but intimidating fi gure in his small farming community. From his “Crucifixion of Labor” sculpture to his Populist diatribes and menagerie of coyotes he kept in backyard cages, Dinsmoor’s eccentricities kept the town at arm’s length. Totem Pole Park, on the other hand, became such a popular local attraction that a neighbor’s disabled son started a soda pop stand that grew to become a general store by the time of Galloway’s death.

Describing the look of Totem Pole Park is difficult. It’s a mash-up of Native American cultures from both the Great Plains and the Northwest, mixed with cryptozoological animals and grotesques that don’t really have any reference in art history. Many say Galloway drew his visual references from National Geographic magazines that he kept in stacks at home. If so, his aesthetic tendencies were right in keeping with what other artists of his day were doing: visually collapsing a world that was already being made smaller and smaller by the advent of 20th century technological advances.

If a totem pole could be considered a cultural archive logging the hopes and dreams of an entire people, then Galloway’s would be one man’s hopeful vision of the world. Four figures stand atop the Totem Pole: Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe, Sitting Bull of the Lakota, the Apache Geronimo, and an unnamed Comanche, all standing nine feet in height. In Galloway’s utopia, where the Indian is held in higher regard than the White Man, the Great Spirit and intelligence of the original Americans is held up to a bird’s eye view of the land that not long before belonged to them.

During his armed service, Galloway spent two long years skirmishing with Muslim freedom fighters in the Philippine Islands after the Spanish-American War. Perhaps his park was a reckoning with his past and a reconciliatory gesture to make amends. But as much as his final act might have been about atonement, Galloway always had a hopeful message and a firm belief in the power of the human imagination, no more so than in an interview recorded by his son just before his death in 1962. Th e message was for his grandson Gary, who was 9 years old at the time:

All right now Gary, now remember this: Imagination is the greatest thing we have. If you go and look at anything, and then turn around and we can’t see it, well, we haven’t got much imagination. Whenever you see anything, try to keep that imagination in mind—the shape of it, the form of it, what it looks like, and then you can go over here and draw or sketch a little something, and then go back over here and make it. When you get your imagination built up to where you can master things, then you create things with it, and if you’ll stay with the Ten Commandments, and listen to what it says, God will lay his hands on you, and he’ll build you up. ‘Cause it says in the Bible, “Seek and ye shall find.” And, “Hark, and it will be given unto you.” So you’ve got to seek for these things. They won’t come to you. You’ve got to seek for them, you’ve got to use your mind and build it up and seek for these things, ‘cause they’re the most essential thing you’ll have through life.


1. The term refers to a mechanic whose job extends into welding, blacksmithing, woodworking, and all the mechanical arts. In Galloway’s case, he was more than likely a soldier artificer who did small-scale projects for his company. This would have meant less formal training and responsibility than the British namesake that built bridges, roads, and other military infrastructure. Galloway’s recollection of the times seems to bear this more casual definition out. He first learned of his new title during a roll call of the company before they embarked from Portland, Oregon en route to Manila Bay in 1901. No formal announcement of his change of rank was made directly to him.

2. “All my life I did the best I knew. I built these things by the side of the road to be a friend to you.” So reads an inscription attributed to Galloway on a sign in the Fiddle House at the park.

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 2. Jan. 15, 2013.