A coat of paint every 20 years, and it’s as good as new. One of the quirky items that make Forest Park unique is a two-story-high authentically designed and carved totem pole tucked away on a front lawn at Washington and Marengo avenues.
The striking reddish-brown pole presides over the front yard of Terry Pryor where the two streets meet in a T. Designed and sculpted by artist Rick Cortez – who worked for Brookfield Zoo creating naturalistic animal habitats for 15 years – it was commissioned by the late Don Schram (1925-1992) and installed in his yard in 1990. Schram, a sportsman and previous owner of Archery Custom Shop, 7240 W. Madison, died two years later. His widow Jean later married Terry Pryor. After she passed away a decade ago, the archery shop, the house and totem pole came to Pryor.
According to Pryor, totem poles have sometimes been mistaken for religious symbols – inspiring missionaries to require converts to burn theirs as “idols” – but in fact “the pole represents sportsmanship.” He points out that the native Americans of the Pacific Northwest were all hunters – hence the interest of bow hunters in such a symbol.
A plaque on the sculpture reads, “KAJUK is dedicated to Nature’s interdependence with Humanity and Responsible Sportsmanship.”
Artist Cortez has built polar bear and seal habitats for Milwaukee County Zoo and worked for the Weber Native American Resource Center, according to his website. He helped build environments for Brookfield Zoo, Field Museum of Natural History, John G. Shedd Aquarium, Dubuque History Museum, Indianapolis Zoo, Bronx Zoo, Phoenix Zoo, DuPage Children’s Museum and others. He has also helped design zoo habitats in Mexico City’s Zoologico Chapultepec and Jalisco’s Zoologico de Guadalajara, and also in Germany.
According to the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, poles such as these were often used to show off wealth at great feasts, as heraldic displays by powerful families, as memorials to deceased chiefs, or even to shame and discredit rivals. Figures carved in the poles – often made from enormous cedar trunks – represented clans and their heroes. Topped by a carved eagle, the winged pole in Pryor’s yard includes a fish and a beaver and is painted in classic tribal colors, but with a twist, Pryor said.
“I went to Paulson’s with a picture I took (of the pole when new) and they matched up all the colors.”
Repainted with standard exterior oil-based house paint a few years ago, the pole looks quite fresh after its makeover. According to Pryor, the pole has inspired envy in the past; he was once asked to donate it to the park district, but respectfully declined.
According to sources in the Public Works Department, Pryor’s totem pole was not always alone: a smaller totem pole existed for a time in a backyard in the 14th and Marengo neighborhood, but it is no longer there.
Pryor is proud to note, “Mine is two stories high – biggest one in town.”