“He looks beautiful,” said Lisa Simpson Lutts, museum executive director. “We are so happy to have him here. He’s going to be very good for the museum.”
She also made a pledge to the community, and especially to those who have followed the Chieftain’s journeys since the original Spring 1974 dedication.
“We will be good caretakers,” Lutts said. “We’re thrilled ... and we’re very pleased that the Cleveland City Council wanted to see this happen.”
Melissa Woody, vice president of the Convention & Visitor’s Bureau for the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce who made the original plea to City Council to move the statue from Johnston Park for its own protection, echoed Lutts’ excitement.
“The Chieftain looks wonderful there,” Woody offered. “He looks majestic. That’s actually the first word that came to mind when I first saw him in front of the museum ... majestic!”
She added, “I was thrilled to go over there and see him in all his glory. He looks even bigger ... and the spot where he has been placed makes it look like it was meant for him all along.”
Woody also gave credit where it is due, the Cleveland Department of Public Works and its director, Tommy Myers.
“I cannot say enough about the Public Works Department,” Woody stressed. “Tommy Myers is a team player and his department is wonderful to work with. Tommy just jumps in and starts working to figure out how we can do something, not how we can’t.”
The Chieftain’s safe relocation from the downtown park to its prominent placement at the museum fell in the laps of Department of Public Works crews who carefully removed it Aug. 23, kept it in storage while the new concrete and mountain stone pedestal was being built at the museum, and then cautiously delivered it to its new home.
Crews applied generous coats of wood preservative to the statue last Monday and Tuesday once it was in place and safely anchored to the new mount.
With each move, and every time the statue was handled, crews took meticulous care because of the statue’s age. Its creator — internationally-acclaimed sculptor Peter “Wolf” Toth — is quoted as projecting his wooden monuments could last 30 to 40 years or more if they are given proper care. Toth’s Native American carvings that are included in the highly acclaimed “Trail of the Whispering Giants” series are traditionally positioned outdoors. Exposure to the weather is a common threat at all sites.
In the case of the Cherokee Chieftain, the statue’s condition is even more delicate because exposure and a termite infestation almost destroyed it 24 years ago when it was removed from the former main branch of the Cleveland Bradley Public Library. In a local government and volunteer campaign to restore the statue, its rotting interior was gutted by professional woodworker Dwight Jenkins — who worked as a volunteer. Jenkins replaced the insides with new wood and then had the monument soaked in a wood preservative at the Conasauga Lumber Company for several hours. The carving, made from white oak, was then remounted at Johnston Park.
The statue was rededicated Dec. 20, 1986. Toth, and his wife Kathy, attended the event. The two had spent most of the week camped out at Johnston Park as the talented sculptor refurbished the monument’s exterior by meticulously chipping away the darkened exterior with the tools of his trade — hammer and chisel.
The Chieftain’s move to the museum will be documented. Woody said the Chamber, the museum and city officials are working together to plan a rededication. This would be the Chieftain’s third — the first coming in 1974 and the second in 1986.
Lutts and Woody pointed out plans also call for the placement of an interpretive plaque to be placed with the Chieftain. It will provide a condensed history of the statue so that visitors will understand its heritage and the fact that it is a gift from Toth who donated wooden statues honoring Native American heritage to all 50 states. Some states now have more than one, including Tennessee. The second, which was dedicated at about the same time that the Chieftain was moved to Johnston Park, is found in Johnston City.
“I am just so thankful to the City Council for seeing the value in moving the Chieftain,” Woody said. She pointed out the statue is already getting increased attention from community residents, downtown workers and visitors. She gave an example.
“I talked to someone who works downtown who spoke of how beautiful the Chieftain is in front of the museum,” Woody explained. “This person then asked me, ‘Where was it before?’ That tells me that people weren’t seeing it in Johnston Park.”
The Chieftain has been placed near another museum exhibit — a quilt square attached to the museum’s exterior that is part of the historic Appalachian Quilt Trail. Until recently, the Cleveland community was not represented with a quilt square on the trail, Woody explained. It now has a dozen.
Woody quoted another downtown businessperson and MainStreet Cleveland advocate who said of the Chieftain’s museum positioning, “It took my breath away. It was breathtaking the first time I saw it there in front of the museum.”
The Cherokee Chieftain traces its literal “roots” back to late 1973 when Toth came to Cleveland the first time to carve the Native American memorial. The Hungarian-born sculptor, who fled the Iron Curtain country with his family in the mid-1950s, came to America and eventually settled in Akron, Ohio. He now lives in Edgewater, Fla.
Toth carved the statue — unnamed at the time — from the bottom 30 feet of a lightning-damaged white oak tree still rooted on the back property line of the late Robert Card Sr. near the Parker and 15th street intersection. Card’s daughter, Amy Card Lillios, now resides in the Georgia Colonial home. Her son, Nicholas Lillios, was born at about the time the still-rooted statue was being dedicated in Spring 1974. (Nicholas) Lillios is a board member and former president of MainStreet Cleveland and the Museum Center at Five Points.