Route 66 – Sears House & The World’s Largest Totem Pole

The Sears catalog house in Chelsea, Oklahoma
From the old ruins of the Avon Motor Court, we raced the late afternoon sun through Vanita (where we did not stop at the world’s largest McDonald’s) to the town of Chelsea for a quick stop to see a Sears house. It’s not exactly what you would call an exciting stop, but it was  interesting to see a home purchased from Sears Roebuck. The house is still standing and serving as a private residence. Shipped by train from Chicago in 1913, it was assembled for $1,600. A home with perfect craftsmanship arriving in a box - some assembly required.

We passed through the site of Bushyhead without seeing it because there’s nothing much left of that ghost town except a funny name. Our next stop was in Foyil to see the memorial to a native Foyilan (just what do you call someone from the town of Foyil?). Andy Payne, a 19-year-old Cherokee became famous in 1928 and helped put the Mother Road in the minds of Americans by winning one hell of a foot race.

Soon after Route 66 was completed, Lon Scott, a promoter for the newly formed Route 66 Association, came up with the idea of a transcontinental footrace. Calling it the “Bunion Derby,” the race followed the new highway from the Pacific Ocean to Chicago and then on to New York City.

Running from California, across the desert of Arizona, the open lands in New Mexico, through the Panhandle of Texas and right through his own hometown; through sand storms, snow storms, rain and city traffic, Andy ran 3,423 miles into New York City and the finish line 84 days after the race began. He finished hours ahead of his nearest competitor to claim the $25,000 prize. Andy went home a hero with the American public comparing him to Charles Lindbergh and other famous icons. Will Rogers, a native of Oklahoma, said, “I kind of felt jealous when I read that someone had supplanted me as favorite son.” Andy came back to Foyil, used the prize money to pay off the mortgage on his parent’s farm and married Vivian, his former high school teacher who was one year older than him. He retired after 38 years serving as the Oklahoma Supreme Court clerk and passed away peacefully in 1977. 

A totem pole “gate” in front of the home
Nathan Galloway built by his own hand
In addition to the every-day average person quietly making their way through life mostly one day at a time, Route 66 seems to have attracted more than it’s fair share of “interesting characters” who have made their home along its roads. Nathan Edward Galloway was one of those interesting kind of people; one of those special people who brought a little magic into people’s lives. Our next stop was at his creation just a couple of miles down the road. He was born in Missouri in 1880 and fought in the Spanish-American war. After his release from military duty, he was making his way to California when he ran low on funds and took a temporary job in Foyil, Oklahoma. He stayed for 45 years.

Youngest-daughter and the
world’s tallest totem pole
He became the industrial arts teacher for the Charles Page Home for Widows and Orphans in Sand Springs and in his spare time, he crafted three-dimensional works for his own pleasure. He loved to sculpt, creating beautiful animals, intricate pictures of wood inlay, and became very proficient at hand-carving and making violins. He purchased some wooded land on an unpaved road just off Route 66 and when he wasn’t working or creating his art, he was building a country home of native rock on his property, walking the land to find the perfect stones and placing them just so. When it was finally completed in 1937, he retired from his teaching job of 20 years and moved into the home he had built with his own two hands.

For several years, Galloway had been thinking about a new creation, a very large totem pole, and now with the time to do it, he began construction at the front of his property next to the road. For the internal structure, he used surplus wire the railroad was going to throw away. He combined the wire with pieces of scrap metal he found in the town dump and salvage yards. When complete, the skeleton weighed 6 tons. Sandstone rock was then added and over that he hand-plastered a mortar mix that used 28 tons of cement. Using only a 5-gallon bucket, he hauled hundreds tons of rock and sand from a nearby creek. 
Very interesting piece of folk art
by Nathan Galloway
He sculpted a 30-foot diameter turtle at the base and began to work upwards, carving bas reliefs of head dressed Native American chiefs, mythical birds, owls, fish, flowers, and lizards. The carvings were then covered with brightly colored paint. Inside the structure, he painted murals depicting memorable events in history. When it was complete after 11 years of hard work, the totem pole stood 90 feet tall.

Not being one to just sit back and watch the grass grow, Galloway designed and started building a 12-sided structure that resembled an Indian hogan. Supported by 25 cement totem poles, this was to be his museum to display the 300 fiddles he had carved by hand, each of them in a different kind of wood. When it was finished, not only did it house the fiddles, it also a contained a large number of his hand-made furniture pieces along with beautiful bas-relief portraits of all the U.S. Presidents up to John F. Kennedy. Local residents began calling it “The Fiddle House."

The 12 foot tall cement tree
trunk Galloway built.
Galloway then added a 12-foot cement tree trunk, complete with holes for the birds to build nests in. Local’s and even a few travelers began stopping by to see the interesting structures and to have a picnic in the shade of the large hardwood trees so Galloway added brightly painted cement tables, stools, and benches. Soon, Totem Pole Park as people called it, became a destination in itself. Seeming to work almost non-stop, Galloway kept adding more structures; more totem poles, cement animals, a totem pole gate and a large arrowhead topped with a spinning weather vane.

He was designing another piece of art, but Galloway ran out of time before he ran out of ideas. In 1962, he passed away at age 82. As he was dying, he wrote his own epitaph: “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.”

Sadly, after his death, with nobody to take care of it, Totem Pole Park fell into disrepair. Vandals, weather, the weeds and decay took their toll. Sometime in the early 1970′s, the Fiddle House was burglarized and all of the fiddles and works of art were stolen. They have never been recovered. It didn’t take long for people to forget about the decaying structures along this piece of side road as their brightly colored paint faded.

Totem Pole Park. The Fiddle House and
picnic area.
In the 1980′s, a slow resurgence of Route 66 began and travelers became curious about the structures they could see in the weeds. Finally, in the mid-1990′s, the Rogers County Historical Society, the Kansas Grass Roots Art Association and the Foyil Heritage Association banded together to rescue Totem Pole Park. On the brink of collapse, just in the nick of time, the Fiddle House and the other structures were restored, repainted, the weeds pulled and grass planted. Today, Totem Pole Park survives; a gift to roadside America, created single-handedly by Nathan Edward Galloway, a true Route 66 folk art genius.

The sun setting on a very good day.
As Youngest-daughter and I walked out of the park, I dropped $10 into the little voluntary donation box. The sun was below the horizon and it was time to call it a day. As we got into our truck, my navigator and traveling companion, this young lady who will always be my baby girl no matter how old she gets, paused to take a picture of the sunset. We headed to Claremore to find a motel for the night. It had been a good day; a very good day.

Go to the first Route 66 entry here.
Or go to the first entry of each state: