Totem pole restoration honors past and inspires future generations

Photo courtesy of George Gouth

Photo courtesy of George Gouth

Local historian George Gouth stands by the city’s landmark totem pole before it was encased in a plastic tentlike structure for a week of drying and dehumidifying.
Photo courtesy of George Gouth

Photo courtesy of George Gouth

City municipal workers lower the totem pole from its I-beam steel support Sept. 29. The pole was displayed at Eureka and Biddle.

Sunday Times Newspapers

     WYANDOTTE – Totem poles have served as both monuments to the past as well as inspirations to the future.

     In that spirit, city workers, businesses and volunteers gathered Sept. 29 to remove the city’s 38-year-old totem pole from its vertical I-beam post near the fountain at Eureka and Biddle to carefully transport it to a municipal building for drying and assessment.

     George Gouth, retired music teacher and city elementary school principal, has championed the totem pole restoration. He was there when Wyandotte Savings Bank underwrote the creation of the pole to celebrate the bank’s 100th year Downriver.

     Gouth teaches children and adults about city and state history, from the formative geology of the glaciers to the present day. He believes that understanding how people are affected by their environment is important to Michigan life.

     The totem pole, at the mercy of the Michigan elements since 1971, was placed in a drying tent Monday on a flatbed trailer along with the turtle top piece, three blowers and a high-capacity dehumidifier.

     The turtle separated from the pole when a crane lowered the totem to a horizontal position because the 3/8-inch bolts holding it in place apparently rusted through completely.

     The municipal building storing the totem pole needed new circuits to handle to the power load demanded by the blower fans and dehumidifier.

     After about a week, workers should be able to determine how much of the red cedar in the totem pole can be restored and what must be replaced.

     John Christie Hardware on North Line is donating items like paint, caulking and wood stabilizer to help with the pole’s restoration.

     One of the totem pole plaques, which had been missing for years, recently was identified in a city museum basement. Local historians speculate that the plaque had been removed for its scrap metal value, and just as quietly returned when its historical significance was revealed.

     Gouth plans to mount the plaques into recessed grooves in the totem pole when he reattaches them.

     The red cedar totem pole is 35 feet tall and 24 inches in diameter. It was carved by Gordon Watkins in 1971.

     The totem pole was met with such strong public enthusiasm that the bank decided to underwrite the cost of printing booklets to teach schoolchildren more about their local lore. Gouth collaborated on many of these, including a book on the Wyandott Indians and the region from the ice age to the present day.

     He hopes to have the pole back at its usual location in three to four weeks, saying, “The painting will be the easiest thing.”      Hood’s Hardware will supply restoration material and donations.

     To keep the pole from being nicked, the project team may put paving stones around it to keep mowers further away from the signage. Meanwhile, the plaques, once reconditioned, will be kept in place with real bronze mounting screws supplied by the Woodruff Monument Co.

     While totem poles originated in the Pacific Northwest, the Wyandotts painted totem signs on the outer walls of their lodges. The poles, carved in wood and placed in a public common area, tell a story that its tellers believe deserves to be remembered. The pole usually is read from top to bottom.

     A smaller version of the pole is mounted in the 27th District Court lobby. Many small, locally made urethane statues exist in local homes as well, officials say, as a treasured and out-of-production civic souvenir.

     The Wyandott totem pole has five distinct sections. The turtle on top is the totem sign of Chief Walked-in-the-Water. Next is an Iroquois warrior with a gun. The crest of Antoine Laumet de la Mothe Cadillac follows. A beaver gnawing on a stick follows them.

     The white fish is a symbol of good fishing, while a Wyandott paddling in a canoe is a farewell gesture.