— Peter “Wolf” Toth
(Dec. 15, 1986: Cleveland, Tenn.)
Someone who should have known better asked me the other day, “What else is there left to say about that statue?”
He was alluding to Cherokee Chieftain which Monday was relocated to the front lawn of the Museum Center at Five Points from Johnston Park, where — according to eyewitness accounts — the historic statue was being abused in disturbing ways while also providing children a perch on which to climb.
I had mentioned writing a follow-up article acknowledging the Native American memorial’s relocation because in Tuesday’s edition all we managed was a photograph and caption. We had to do more. It is that important.
Before responding to my friend’s inquiry about “that statue,” I pondered which lecture to offer — my all-encompassing history reliving man’s inhumanity to man, the endearing role of eternal hope in heart and mind, and most importantly our mandate to honor those who came before us and to learn from their wisdom. Or, simply give him the “it’s the right thing to do” speech.
For his convenience, I selected the latter because the former — my preachy history lesson — gets a little emotional. He listened patiently so I hope my message was absorbed.
In light of the stories I’m told about its downtown park abuses, moving the Chieftain was appropriate. At the very least, its removal was for the right reason.
Not so 24 years ago. In late 1986, the statue was relocated from the Main Branch of the Cleveland Bradley County Public Library (now the History Branch on Ocoee Street) to accommodate additional parking. The removal came due to progress. In hindsight, it probably was a blessing because this is when municipal leaders learned how badly the statue had deteriorated.
Its decline was due to exposure to the weather and a severe termite infestation. Something had to be done. Thankfully, city staff and members of the existing Cleveland City Commission didn’t listen to a volunteer government engineer who inspected the statue and told the Cleveland Daily Banner, “As far as I’m concerned, the Indian is gone. He is totally rotten.”
That faulty prognosis came Aug. 1, 1985.
The naysayer’s dismissal could have cost Cleveland and Bradley County residents a precious gift that had been given by internationally acclaimed sculptor Peter “Wolf” Toth, a conscientious advocate of the 1970s who commemorated Native American heritage, as evidenced by his now famous “Trail of the Whispering Giants” sculpture series. The talented Hungarian refugee traveled to every state in the U.S. carving majestic monuments in tribute to the American Indian. He selected Cleveland because of our own history — the tragic “Trail of Tears” Indian removal and the Cherokees’ final council site at Red Clay State Historic Area.
To do anything less than save this dedicated artist’s heartfelt gift would have been an injustice.
The right people got involved. Then-Cleveland Mayor Bill Schultz, City Manager Joe Cate and Courts/Community Service Coordinator Gary Conner recruited another visionary — craftsman Dwight Jenkins — who carefully disassembled the statue, meticulously hollowed out the rotted interior of the Chieftain, replaced it with new wood and then soaked it for hours in wood preservative at the Conasauga Lumber Company.
Jenkins lovingly reassembled the Chieftain, Gary Rose of Rose Masonry built a mountain stone platform, city crews carefully anchored the shortened base to its new pedestal and the statue was rededicated Dec. 20, 1986. Its creator, Toth, came to Cleveland and camped out the entire week in Johnston Park, where he refurbished the monument by slowly chipping away the darkened exterior with his tools of love — a hammer and chisel.
It was a homecoming for the sculptor because 12 years earlier he spent several weeks here carving the original statue (late 1973) from a lightning-damaged white oak tree on the back property line of the Robert Card Sr. home near the corner of Parker and 15th streets. Mayor Harry L. Dethero was the city leader at the time.
In an interview with the Banner, Toth said he was impressed with the care city leaders and volunteers had given the statue in its restoration. He was thankful folks here didn’t give in to the gloomy engineering assessment. In his words on Dec. 15, 1986, he said, “I’m surprised someone mentioned it was decayed beyond repair. I don’t think they knew what they were talking about.”
Perhaps the doomsday engineer just lacked hope and vision, and didn’t understand the power of one when people of diverse backgrounds work together toward a common good.
I’ll have more to say next week about Cherokee Chieftain and an historic parallel the memorial is living.
In the meantime, drop by the downtown museum on Inman Street and soak in the splendor.
The Chieftain is home.
May peace follow.