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.
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.
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.