FOYIL, Okla. — In 1937, art teacher Ed Galloway began his retirement project: a 90-foot-tall totem pole rising from the back of a big blue turtle. The tower of steel was coated with concrete, created in part with sand from a nearby river, and gradually rose from his humble yard in Foyil, Oklahoma. When Galloway completed the colossal sculpture 11 years later, its four sides, aligned with the cardinal directions, incorporated around 200 images in bas relief. Then he kept going, adding to his property smaller totem poles and an 11-sided “Fiddle House” to contain the fiddles he was attempting to carve from every tree in the world (he got to about 300).
After Galloway’s death from cancer in 1962, his elaborate folk art environment fell into disrepair; it was subject to vandalism, and many of the fiddles were stolen. The whole site may have deteriorated irreversibly if not for community action. In the 1990s, the Rogers County Historical Society and the Kansas Grassroots Art Association carried out a restoration to stabilize the site. Now Ed Galloway’s Totem Pole Park is managed by the Rogers County Historical Society and the Foyil Heritage Association. Last summer, two artists who grew up in Tulsa — Margo Hoover, based in Oakland, and Erin Turner, in Brooklyn — repainted the central totem pole. This summer the restoration project has continued, including the removal of old paint. Although it’s been decades since Galloway hand-built his concrete monuments, they’re returning to a colorful vibrancy that highlights each curious detail. The public can also help by sponsoring these unusual totem pole images.
And the Totem Pole Park is strange. For one thing, Oklahoma is home to almost 40 indigenous nations, but none of them has a major tradition involving totem poles. Galloway’s owl wearing a medallion of a man in a headdress, the color scheme of pink and turquoise, and the large blue turtle at the base of the primary column — perhaps referencing the World Turtle myth — have little to do with local tribes, or really any culture on Earth. According to the National Park Service, which added Totem Pole Park to the National Register of Historic Places in 1999, Galloway took inspiration from National Geographic magazines and postcards. He interpreted those sources rather fantastically, as a concrete cactus topped with watchful owls or in the bulbous shape of the central totem pole itself.
I visited Totem Pole Park on an overcast Christmas Eve, the grass brittle, the Fiddle House gift shop closed, and the parking lot empty except for our sole car. Photographs I’d seen online didn’t capture how much the totem poles stand out from the surrounding rural landscape, in which single-story homes and well-used pickup trucks quietly line the two-lane road. Yet Totem Pole Park is just a few miles off the famous Route 66 — you can drive a short way to Catoosa and see the Blue Whale, a grinning concrete cetacean sporting a baseball hat that was built in the 1970s by Hugh Davis for his wife. Concrete may have facilitated the Brutalist behemoths of the 20th century, but it also allowed visionary artists to make their goliath dreams reality.
Before he took a teaching job at the Children’s Home Orphanage in Sand Springs, Oklahoma, the Missouri-born Galloway had been headed west to California, hoping to show some giant wood carvings at the 1915 Panama–Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. The Rogers County Historical Society states that he’d been “introduced to Japanese and Far Eastern art while stationed in the Philippine Islands” during his early 1900s military service, which may have contributed to his omnivorous cultural taste. According to American Folk Art, his work caught the eye of the orphanage’s philanthropist Charles Page, who offered him the Sand Springs job. He taught woodcarving there for more than 20 years, a long time for a detour.
Picnic tables and a grill, all adorned with Galloway’s wide-eyed birds and other creatures, were obviously designed to encourage visitors to linger at this self-made roadside attraction. Just across the lawn, you can still see the artist’s old stone home, where he’d often awake before sunrise in order to begin work on the totem poles. Guarding the doors to the Fiddle House are two birds emblazoned with the phrases “come back” and “good luck.” It’s hard to know exactly what Galloway imagined for the future of Totem Pole Park, although you don’t build 90-foot monuments without some expectation of their posthumous survival. As Galloway reportedly said shortly before his death, “All my life I did the best I knew. I built these things by the side of the road to be a friend to you.”
Ed Galloway’s Totem Pole Park is located at 21300 East Highway 28A in Foyil, Oklahoma.