Totem pole restoration to boost  Route 66 tourism

The large totem pole at Totem Pole Park between Foyil and Chelsea is now almost as vibrant as the day Ed Galloway painted it.

The restoration effort, led by Park Director David Anderson with work done by Artist Erin Turner, began in 2015 and is nearing completion.

Claremore Collective hosted a panel discussion Thursday with Anderson, Turner and director of the Route 66 Alliance Ken Busby to discuss the renovation project and the role the park plays in Rogers County and Oklahoma tourism.

Andy Couch, Director of the Claremore Museum of History, moderated the event.


Totem Pole Park, created in the 1930s and 40s by retired Foyil resident Ed Galloway, is now owned and managed by the Rogers County Historical Society.

Upkeep of the park is funded through a gift shop on site, grants, donations and a rental property on site.

The totem poles in the park were repainted in the late 1980s and early 90s by the Kansas Grassroots Art Association, but had since faded.

Turner grew up in Tulsa where she took and interest in sculpture and painting, and eventually developed a career in art that took her to New York. On a visit back to Tulsa in 2014, she visited the park for the first time.

Through a chance conversation, Turner found they were looking for someone to restore the place, so she offered her services, and got to work researching the park and Ed Galloway.

“It was a year-long research project just understanding the history of it, what exactly the structure was,” Turner said.

Turner got in touch with Kansas Grassroots Art Association about their work as well as locating archival photographs to get a sense of the original piece.

Then she set to work restoring the project, with one key change.

Unlike the original and the first restoration, which were done with a latex paint that has a 10-year life span, Turner used a mineral-based paint that causes the pigment of crushed rocks to adhere directly to the concrete like a layer of stone.

The new paint should easily last 25 years, and will only need a clear protective coat laid over the top every 25 years thereafter to preserve the striking colors.

Turner said one of her main goals in restoring the project is similar to Galloway’s main goal in creating the totem poles to begin with – to honor the lives and memories of the American Indian.

Her favorite thing about restoring the project is seeing the 11 years Galloway spent creating the totem pole play out on it’s surface.

“You can actually see in his handicraft and in the way that he was making the surface, you can see his hands ageing as he moves up to the top,” Turner said. “It becomes less and less detailed. And it’s one of the most poetic and beautiful things, I think, about the structure. You really see this man’s hands age as you move up.”

Busby responded in awe, “Those are the kind of stories … that’s what people want to know about. That is the magic.”

The restoration of the main totem pole is expected to be finished by fall 2020.

Route 66 and Tourism

During the months the park has been open this year, March through September from noon to 4 p.m., a little over 7,000 groups visited the park.

Around 1,100 people were visiting from overseas, from 45 different countries.

“I grew up with 150-feet of Route 66, and it was just another road,” Anderson said, recounting seeing Route 66 memorabilia while on vacation in Rome and Maine. “But when you get away, Route 66 means something to people.”

“We have something here that is not only of interest to us, but to the world,” Anderson said.

Getting grants for the restoration of the park is difficult because most Route 66 grants require the site to be within a half-mile from the road, and the totem pole is four miles off.

However, Busby suggested to park look at online marketing and donations as a way to supplement income.

“If you think about Route 66 and how it was advertised, go back to 1952 for a second and the Will Rogers Highway,” Busby said. “They used to say, ‘You can see the Grand Canyon.’ No you can’t. You can’t see the Grand Canyon from Route 66. But it was marketing. It was hype. And still, you took 66 out there and then you get off and then you drove 20 miles and then you could get there.”

“Things like this fantastic Ed Galloway Totem Pole Park are absolutely part of that history,” Busby said. “It doesn’t matter that you’re right on Route 66 or not. Are you doing something interesting? Is it something that is cool? Is there a great story to tell? People want those, and they don’t mind getting off.”

The stories of the people who lived along Route 66, and the Native Americans who lives in Oklahoma before that, anything that fits into the Americana tradition, sells well to tourists in Oklahoma.

“The road guides you, but it is the communities that you are passing by that have the cool stories,” Busby said. “That is the secret to all of our marketing of Route 66 – telling those stories and finding the cool places that have them.”

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