Welcome to our historic preservation advocacy page for Old Trapper’s Lodge, which was first published on February 21, 2022, two months before Pierce College allowed a crew associated with Valley Relics Museum to remove the Boot Hill Cemetery sculptures. If you’d like to know the history of this folk art environment, why the artist’s family is so upset, and what they want to see happen next, please read on.
Original post: In a remote section of the campus of Pierce College in the San Fernando Valley, there is a remarkable and little known folk art environment, Old Trapper’s Lodge (California State Landmark 939.5)—but it might not be there for much longer.
The aim of this campaign is to introduce you to this special place, encourage you to visit (map link), and ask you to join us in starting a dialogue with Pierce College about the future stewardship of the landmark they have been caring for since 1988, and which some members of its faculty and student body hope to see removed.
Read on to learn more about this California landmark and why its future is uncertain.
Conceived and built entirely by John “O.T.” Ehn (1897-1981) on the grounds of his Sun Valley motel (also called Old Trapper’s Lodge), the folk art environment consists of 7 monumental sculptures with sculpted bases, a faux Boot Hill cemetery with wooden and sculpted headstones (45 total), a totem pole, a wall of grotesque sculpted heads, a baby rattler cage and a large fanged turtle.
Raised in his father’s lumber and fishing camp in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, John Ehn was a skilled trapper who spent two decades working for the state, killing animals that preyed on livestock. When John and Mary Ehn brought their family to Southern California in 1941, John was a partially disabled 45 year old, with a passion for Old West history and mythology. He accumulated a collection of costumes and artifacts, and began to dress and play the part of The Old Trapper in the personal and architectural brand he created for his family’s motel business.
In 1951, John Ehn hired Claude K. Bell, fabricator of the concrete Old West bench sitters at Knott’s Berry Farm—and later of the Cabazon dinosaurs—to build a larger than life figure of himself as The Old Trapper for the front of the motel. Ehn watched Bell work, learned his technique, and spent the next thirty years constructing the sculpted characters that would make up The Old Trapper’s Lodge folk art environment.
Over the decades, the Ehn family motel business expanded to a 2.6 acre village of rental properties, 78 buildings housing about 400 people, 100 of them children. At the heart of the complex was the original motel, surrounded by sculptures and Boot Hill gravestones, with a mini Old West museum in the office.
Old Trapper’s Lodge gained fame as a California folk art environment, featured in guest curator Seymour Rosen’s SFMOMA Bicentennial exhibition “In Celebration of Ourselves,” partly funded by a National Endowment for the Arts grant.
After helping save Watts Towers from demolition, Seymour Rosen spent fifteen years traveling the state to document folk art environments and their creators, as well as custom cars, vans and motorcycles, tattoos, graffiti, miniature golf courses, demolition derbies and pageants. He believed that California offered a special environment in which untrained, offbeat creativity could flourish, and that this unique and vulnerable outsider artwork needed to be preserved and protected through landmarking and nonprofit and civic stewardship.
“Who says art has to have a frame? [These are] dreams we may all have had, but these people went ahead and did them. California has provided a frontier, a freedom to create—and there are more industrial discards to work with.” – Seymour Rosen, 1977
In 1978, Seymour Rosen founded SPACES, Saving and Preserving Arts and Cultural Environments, a foundation dedicated to documenting, landmarking, interpreting and stewarding these unconventional artworks. In 1981, SPACES nominated ten California folk art environments as State and National Register landmarks, among them Old Trapper’s Lodge.
Old Trapper’s Lodge became a landmark in May 1981. John Ehn died that December, and his wife Mary died in April 1982. Their children continued operating the Old Trapper’s Lodge motel and rental properties until 1987, when the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority voted to buy the land and demolish the buildings to extend Burbank Airport’s runways. The evicted tenants received relocation settlements.
SPACES worked with the Ehn family to place smaller sculptures in museums, and looked for a single site where the large sculptures and Boot Hill cemetery could be reinstalled. In 1988, an agreement was reached with Pierce College to install Old Trapper’s Lodge in Alvin Cleveland Park. The Ehn family placed the sculptures on long-term loan and paid for their reinstallation, under the condition that Pierce maintain them.
But Pierce immediately reneged on the agreement that the Ehn Family could build a replica log cabin to hold additional artifacts and help interpret Old Trapper’s Lodge. 34 years later, the sculptures and painted tombstones are suffering from exposure to the elements and vandalism. There is not now and apparently never has been any campus signage to help the public find it, and no on-site interpretation. And with the college closed to the public, the landmark was inaccessible for much of the pandemic.
For about a decade, members of the Pierce College academic community and student body have been quietly lobbying administrators to remove the landmark, on the grounds that Old Trapper’s Lodge is offensive.
The sculpture that they most object to is The Fight, which in the absence of on-site interpretation, appears to show a settler murdering a Native American. But as John Ehn’s daughter Rosemarie Farish explained to Los Angeles Times reporter Scott Harris in 1996, The Fight is in fact a cautionary tale of Old West folklore. Of this piece, her father said that Pegleg and Big Bear were fighting to the death over the ownership of a cow, leaving two families fatherless. “All the men had to do is set their differences aside and share the food. It’s a lesson about sharing and caring.”
Another sculpture that has been described as offensive is The Kidnap, on the grounds that it depicts a Native American figure abducting a white woman However, the figure is not a Native American.
The failure of Pierce College to allow the log cabin to be built, and the lack of any interpretive material at Old Trapper’s Lodge regrettably leaves the artwork open to misinterpretation by viewers who are unfamiliar with John Ehn’s intentions, the stories that he attached to the individual sculptures, and how these figures drew on his personal mythology and are based on family members.
Thus, in December 2020, Sociology professor James McKeever told a reporter at Granada Hills Charter High School, “My feeling about the statues is that they are a part of Pierce’s racist past and present. That really needs to be changed…. [to] see it actually go down, it would be one of my greatest accomplishments at Pierce College.” Brian Walsh, the chapter president for the faculty guild, added that he believes the statues are horrible and are incredibly racist.
Walsh and McKeever failed to mention that they had already initiated the administrative process of having Old Trapper’s Lodge removed from Pierce College.
[TIMELINE UPDATED: 10/14/2022] These files from August 2020, when Pierce College was locked down due to Covid and there was no public access to the landmark, document efforts by the Pierce College delegation of the AFT 1521 faculty union, including Chapter President Walsh and McKeever, to declare Old Trapper’s Lodge as a racist symbol and begin the process of its removal.
The Resolution to Remove, which fails to identify Old Trapper’s Lodge as a California State Landmark, also makes the false and central assertion that the artwork “promot[es] racist depictions of indigenous people as violent rapists attacking white settlers.” This description refers to one statue (“Kidnap”) out of dozens of statues and tombstones included in the landmark, and misrepresents the bearded, jeans wearing male figure as a Native American.
For context on how inaccessible Pierce College was at this time, see this campus newspaper editorial “Reopen Pierce” (9/18/2020), which calls on administrators to reopen the campus for the benefit of the wider community that needs access to open space.
The most recent reporting is an October 2021 story in the Pierce College newspaper, which describes the process of deaccessioning Old Trapper’s Lodge as moving forward, with a planned gift of the landmark to Valley Relics.
Deaccession of a California State Landmark is a very serious matter. If the artwork is indeed to be removed, we believe the community beyond Pierce College should be included in the conversation. There has been no press coverage of the potential move save by student journalists, no discussion of how and where the artwork will be reinstalled and under what conditions, and no opposing viewpoints presented.
After trying and failing to gain access earlier in the pandemic when campus was closed, we finally were able to visit Old Trapper’s Lodge in February 2022. It was difficult to find the sculptures, because the college has erected a fence around the main park entrance. Once we found a way inside up a gravel path and down a hill, we were captivated by these mute representations of Western mythology, and the tenderness of the portraits of John Ehn’s family members, rendered as pioneers, dead and dancing girls. (Note: see 3/5/2022 update below about new access restrictions to the site.)
Even in their current deteriorating state, which we documented in a short video, this is a great work of art with a lot to offer those lucky enough to see it, and we want to ensure that it is protected and kept accessible for future generations.
As Friends of Old Trapper’s Lodge, we call on Pierce College to halt any planned deaccession, gift or removal of the artwork and to enter into an open dialogue with the wider Los Angeles community and art community, the State Historical Resources Commission and with John Ehn’s family, about future stewardship of California Historical Landmark 939.5.
• If Old Trapper’s Lodge is to be moved, it must be done by fine art professionals to ensure that the sculptures do not suffer any additional damage, and should be preceded by a professional conditions report.
• If Old Trapper’s Lodge is to be moved, it should be reinstalled in a comparable environment to its current home in Alvin Cleveland Park, with the individual sculptures and Boot Hill tombstones arranged so that they can be experienced together as the artist intended.
• If Old Trapper’s Lodge is to be moved, it should continue to be accessible to the public, as was the Ehn Family Trust’s intention.
• If Old Trapper’s Lodge is to be moved, it should be to an institution that is committed to restoring the sculptures and maintaining them in good condition, and providing interpretation about John Ehn’s life and work.
We look forward to a productive conversation about the future of this unique folk art environment, and to helping to bring John Ehn’s real vision to a wider audience.
Update 3/2/2022: Today we made public comment (video link) to the LACCD Board of Trustees. This is the entity which oversees Pierce College, which seeks to move Old Trapper’s Lodge from its campus, and we want the trustees to help ensure the landmark is protected by issuing an RFP (request for proposal) to find the best steward for California Historical Landmark #939.5.
Update 3/5/2022: On an attempted return visit, an LASD Security Officer immediately approached us and said that the public is not permitted to visit the landmark unless they ask permission from Pierce College. There are no signs anywhere on the fence surrounding Old Trapper’s Lodge explaining these access restrictions, and the Security Officer did not tell us who to ask. We do not presently know if Pierce College will grant access to members of the public who want to visit the landmark.
Update 4/13/2022: Since Rolf Schleicher, Vice President of Administrative Services for Pierce College, has not responded to numerous emails about the plans for Old Trapper’s Lodge and how the public can gain access to the fenced site, we again made public comment (video link) to the LACCD Board of Trustees, the entity which oversees Pierce College, asking that they step in to help ensure the landmark is protected.
Update 4/15/2022: On Facebook, people associated with Valley Relics posted photo and video of some of the smaller Old Trapper’s Lodge tombstone and wagon wheel sculptures being removed from Pierce College without any evidence of the professional care that would befit a fragile, deteriorating example of California State Landmark folk art. The photo at right, showing a person with their foot on a stack of sculpted tombstones piled in the back of a pick up truck, and the tombstone of Iron Foot Eva lying on a metal dolly with no protective wrapping and a rake on top, is deeply disturbing. (Note: This post was later deleted.)
Here is the sculpted tombstone of Iron Foot Eva as it appeared in place at Pierce College when we visited in February 2022.
Update 4/28/2022: A message from the family of Old Trapper’s Lodge artist John Ehn to fans and friends of the sculptures – Thank you for caring about our grandfather’s California State Landmark folk art environment, which was saved from demolition when it was moved from its original Sun Valley motel home to the campus of Pierce College in 1988. The college no longer wants to host the art, and has quietly acted to have it moved away, with no public notice or discussion about what’s best for the art and for the community that loves it. We are asking the college to hit the pause button and start a public conversation to make sure Old Trapper’s Lodge is protected and accessible now and for future generations.
Update 4/29/2022: John Ehn’s family members Kristen Cassidy and Marsha Klopfenstein and our Richard Schave made public comment to the California State Historical Resources Commission, asking that they help navigate the crisis of stewardship facing Old Trapper’s Lodge, a registered state landmark. You can hear these comments on Cal-Span starting with Richard at timestamp 4:49:07, then Kristen and Marsha starting at 4:53:59. Live tweets are here.
Update 5/4/2022: John Ehn’s family members Kristen Cassidy and Marsha Klopfenstein and our Richard Schave made public comment to the Los Angeles Community College District which oversees Pierce College, which you can hear at this link. LACCD is asked to invite Escher Associates, which produced the $27,000 appraisal report (see below) on how to properly deal with the sculptures which we had to obtain through a public records request, to give a public report on their findings. Live tweets are here.
Update 5/22/2022: If you listen to the public comment links above, you’ll hear reference to a $27,000 appraisal report commissioned by Pierce College. This 59 page report, produced by Escher Associates in March 2021, was never made available to the public despite being paid for with public funds. We have obtained the report through a public records request, and make it available now. You can read it here, and read more about this discovery in the Esotouric newsletter.
Included with the report document, inserted by us, are the only two instances (that we have been able to find) where Old Trapper’s Lodge was placed on the agenda by the LACCD Board which oversees Pierce College: The 4/14/2021 vote to retroactively pay Escher Associates for its report, and the deliberately deceptive 9/1/2021 vote with no discussion to “Approve Donation of Surplus Property at Pierce College.” This vague language is how Pierce and LACCD hid their intention to remove Old Trapper’s Lodge / California State Landmark 939.5 from the Pierce campus and public view.
In the Escher Associates report, note the section on Treatment and Deinstallation (page 27+ in our combined document, and Exhibits A and B), which reads: “Should Pierce College and LACCD choose to relocate or donate the works from their current placement, the following factors should be considered to support the value of the collection. In order to successfully move this collection from its current location, the expertise of conservators and art logistics companies is necessary. Prior to deinstallation, an art conservation team should consolidate any at-risk portions of the sculptures to prevent further breakage or loss. In reaching out to LA Art Labs, they have provided an estimate of $76,150 to perform this work on site to prepare the artwork for deinstallation and transportation. Once the collection is prepared, Crozier, the nation’s premier art logistics company, has estimated this project in the range of $157,390 to deinstall, crate, and transport the collection.”
Instead of following the best practices spelled out in this report commissioned with public funds, Pierce College suppressed its publication and permitted elements of Old Trapper’s Lodge to be thrown into the back of a pick-up truck.
Update 7/5/2022: An anonymous Friend of Old Trapper’s Lodge submits the following report, along with the photographs above: I had the opportunity to observe the present day environment of the Old Trapper’s Lodge firsthand on July 5, 2022. This was done through holes in the cloth attached to the fence, because I found the site locked up tight, with no indication of how the public can gain access.
My impression upon viewing Old Trapper’s Lodge in its current state was that it appeared as if portions of the environment had been physically disturbed in some sort of excavation or through the removal of some of the sculptures.
I noticed this in various places, but most noticeably in the “Boot Hill” section, where the sculptures I expected to see have been removed, but not completely. Around this section I saw what appeared to be at least one full gravestone tablet lying flat on the ground, along with assorted rubble strewn about, consisting of loose stones, pieces of wood, areas of overturned dirt and the broken foundations that apparently used to secure “Boot Hill” gravestone sculptures in place.
I also observed that the general condition of Alvin Cleveland Park seemed overgrown and unkempt. It appeared as if the maintenance and care of landscaping and walkways had been abandoned, and the trees and weeds were just growing wildly around the sculptures. These plants are very dry, and this concerned me since I was visiting around 4th of July.
There was a substantial amount of what I would describe as random trash just lying about, which I thought might include unrelated items that had been dumped.
My overall perception was that Old Trapper’s Lodge looks and seems like a site that had either been abandoned or was in the process of some kind of ongoing demolition or dismantling. But just as there was no signage explaining how to visit the landmark, there was nothing to explain what is happening and why it looks so terrible.
As a visitor who came to Pierce Collage hoping to see what I understood to be a protected historic landmark that was being preserved and displayed in its own custom-designed outdoor environment, I was disappointed to discover everything seemingly “rotting away” as if it no longer had any value. I can honestly say I’ve never seen an officially recognized landmark, and especially not a California State Landmark, in such a neglected and compromised condition.
Update 9/11/2022: In a moving post on her newsletter, journalist Tanya Ward Goodman pays a visit to the Old Trapper’s Lodge folk art environment in the company of the artist’s grand-daughter and great-grand-daughter, to witness recent damage to the threatened landmark through the eyes of those who helped create it and recognize the figures as portraits of their kin. Tanya’s father Ross J. Ward created the New Mexican folk art environment Tinkertown, subjects of her acclaimed memoir Leaving Tinkertown.
Update 10/7/2022: On 9/29/22, Fabiola Carrizosa, a reporter for the Pierce College paper the Roundup News, reached out via multiple channels asking to speak with us about Old Trapper’s Lodge. We responded promptly, giving her an interview and a written statement for publication. The story as published in print on October 5 and online on October 6 includes Tommy Gelinas of Valley Relics Museum making allegations about our historic preservation advocacy, but we were not quoted, nor given the opportunity to respond. This is a violation of basic journalistic standards, is misleading, and is unfair to us and to readers.
Below is the statement we provided. We have asked the Roundup News’ editors to add it to the online story in a prominent location and to include it in the next print edition, along with a link to this page.
STATEMENT: “Old Trapper’s Lodge is a California State Landmark that was relocated to Pierce at great cost and effort by the artist’s family and the folk art nonprofit SPACES Archives. We believe that the college has a moral responsibility to publicize its efforts to deaccession this remarkable artwork, and actively seek a new location for Old Trapper’s Lodge, through a Request For Proposals (RFP). And since the college commissioned a report at significant public expense on how best to stabilize and pack the sculptures for transit, these best practices should be used when and if the sculptures are moved off site. I think it is unconscionable that an amateur crew from Valley Relics Museum was invited by Pierce administrators to remove pieces of the landmark without any regard for these best practices of care.” -Richard Schave, preservationist, Esotouric Tours
Damian Sullivan, who has been active in the campaign to protect Old Trapper’s Lodge, shared his critique of the Roundup News article here.
Update 10/14/2022: Esotouric presents a free webinar, Save Old Trapper’s Lodge, A California State Landmark, which includes the debut of Damian Sullivan’s short film of artist John Ehn’s family on their first visit to Old Trapper’s Lodge since the Boot Hill Cemetery section was desecrated. Also, the timeline on this webpage has been updated to include the August 2020 Resolution to remove “Old Trapper’s Lodge” statues from the grounds of Los Angeles Pierce College, which you can read here.
Update 10/17/22: In gratitude that Pierce College’s deadline for the Ehn Family to come get the damaged folk art environment or it would be thrown away has been extended, please enjoy this rediscovered Super 8 footage (reel 2, reel 3) from James Smith Pierce (ca. 1976) showing the brightly painted and intact sculptures at their original home at the Old Trapper’s Lodge motel.
Update 10/24/22: In an Instagram post in which we and John Ehn’s family member Kristen Cassidy are tagged, Valley Relics Museum blames us for the blow back resulting from their amateur removal of the Boot Hill Cemetery sculptures. Direct link, our annotated repost.
Update 2/27/23: After several months with no action by Pierce College, Old Trapper’s Lodge is on the 3/1/23 agenda for the Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD) board meeting. Once again as in 2021, the description is deliberately misleading. There is no mention of the California State Landmark designation, and the artwork’s correct name is never used, making it difficult to understand why anyone should care about the “disposal of surplus personal property.” Further, the material being discussed includes “45 wooden or stone fabricated tombstones,” which describes the Boot Hill Cemetery portion of the landmark that was removed without Ehn family permission by the amateur crew from Valley Relics, leaving broken bits behind. Will Valley Relics return the missing sculptures to Pierce College, so that the school can auction off or dispose of them?
If you would like to make public comment about Pierce College’s failure to look after Old Trapper’s Lodge, and to ask LACCD to vote “no” on the motion to dispose of it and to instead do an RFP (Request for Proposals) to find a suitable new home, please send an email to Crystal L. Takeyama <TAKEYACL@email.laccd.edu> and cc <LACCDBoTOffice@laccd.edu>, asking to be put on the list to speak on 3/1 about agenda item 8 (Disposal of Surplus Property at Los Angeles Pierce College). Crystal will confirm via email and send you the Zoom link.
You can also submit written public comments by e-mail to: LACCDBOToffice@laccd.edu by 2/28/23. Our written public comment is below:
On behalf of Friends of Old Trappers Lodge, community advocates for the preservation and stewardship of California State Landmark 939.5, we beseech you NOT to vote yes on Pierce College’s request to auction off or dispose of the sculptures.
We ask that you please instead move to issue an RFP to begin a process to find the best possible new home for Old Trappers Lodge, something that should have been done in the first place.
As documented on our advocacy webpage, Pierce has failed to be a transparent and ethical steward for this masterpiece of American folk art that was gifted by the Ehn Family Trust to the people of California.
Despite your board approving the expenditure of $27,000 in public funds for an appraisal and best practices report from Escher Associates, Pierce never made the report available to the public–we only obtained it through a public records request–and ignored all of the professional recommendations within.
Instead, before the Ehn Family Trust had signed off, Pierce invited an amateur crew from Valley Relics Museum onto the campus and allowed them to dismantle the Boot Hill Cemetery section of the work and remove those sculptures from the site. Many were broken in the process, and a disturbing photograph showing a crew member with their foot on sculptures in the back of a pickup truck was posted on Facebook.
The item on your agenda on 3/1/2023 has numerous errors and omissions. At no point is the California State Landmark status mentioned. It mis-titles “Old Trapper’s Lodge” as “Boot Hill Cemetery.” It specifically references the tombstones that have been removed by Valley Relics Museum and are no longer on the Pierce College campus. It falsely states that the Ehn family consented to Valley Relics taking possession of the sculptures. And it states that the sculptures were offered to all nine colleges in the district, but there is no evidence that such an offer was made from the voluminous public records that we received from Pierce.
Please do the right thing for Old Trapper’s Lodge. It is not too late to direct Valley Relics Museum to return the missing tombstones, and for Pierce to actually make an honest effort to find a good new home for the landmark.
thank you, Kim Cooper & Richard Schave
Update 3/1/23: At the beginning of the LACCD hearing, the matter of disposing of Old Trapper’s Lodge was stricken from the agenda without further comment, to be returned at the appropriate time. We hope our letter to the board expressing concern about the errors and omissions in the agenda description and asking that Pierce College do the right thing by the landmark played some role in this change.
Update 6/19/23: Concerned preservation pals Cat Whalen and Sandi Hemmerlein bushwhacked their way onto the grounds of Old Trapper’s Lodge to document the current, neglected state of the landmark. The juxtaposition of these beautiful, misunderstood figures with the dried weeds left behind by unseasonable rains are haunting. Cat’s photograph of the sculpted feet of Iron Foot Eva, ripped away from her tombstone when the Boot Hill Cemetery section of the landmark was vandalized by Valley Relics, is a powerful indictment of Pierce College’s failed stewardship and all the foolish men who have ruined what is in many ways a feminist artwork.
The feminist theme is driven home by a recent discovery of a likely inspiration for John Ehn’s mother figure, in the nationwide Madonna of the Trail monument series commissioned by the National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution (NSDAR) and dedicated in 1928-29. The photo below shows the Upland, CA monument and John Ehn’s sculpture.