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Updated: Tuesday, 04 Jan 2011, 10:46 AM CST
Published : Tuesday, 04 Jan 2011, 10:44 AM CST
TEXARKANA, Texas (AP) - It seems like a hard thing to lose: a stately, 30-foot, wooden American Indian head capped by an elaborate feathered headdress, his twin, shoulder-length plaits of hair framing a weathered but regal visage.
But no one knows exactly what happened to the statue that, until 20 years ago, stood sentry in front of the Texas Travel Information Center on Interstate 30 in Texarkana.
The bust, hewn from red oak, was the creation of Hungarian-born sculptor Peter Wolf Toth. It was part of Toth's Trail of the Whispering Giants, a series of more than 50 massive pieces the artist created across the country. He placed at least one in each state to memorialize the plight of the American Indian.
The Texarkana statue, badly deteriorated by years of exposure and years of seeping rainwater, was removed in 1990; its long-empty pedestal followed years later.
"We made every effort we could to maintain it and to get it repaired, but there was really just no one with the skill to repair it," said Stuart Daniels, then-vice president of the Texarkana Chamber of Commerce. "It just kind of fell apart. I really don't know what became of the remnants of it."
It was taken to Four States Fairgrounds for storage while the resources could be marshaled to fix it. It was meant to be a temporary resting place, but it remained there for the better part of a decade.
"We put it inside the arena for awhile until at some point in time we had to move it out for events," said Ralph Shoptaw, then-executive director of the Fair Association. "I think they moved it down to our shop at our south gate. Sometime after that is when I left."
Shoptaw, now the general manager of the Arkansas State Fair, is pretty sure it was still there when he left Texarkana in 1997. But it definitely wasn't there when Four States Fair Association Vice President Lisa Barr joined the staff in 1998.
"It's one of the things that if you saw it, you'd remember," Barr said.
She was told that it had never made the move when the fair relocated from Spring Lake Park to the Arkansas-side fairgrounds decades ago. She later learned from a longtime maintenance worker that the effigy had been kept in the shop until the mid- to late-1990s, when a pair of movers took it away.
More than a decade later, the worker didn't remember who the movers were or where they took the statue.
That seems to be the last time the statue was seen in Texarkana.
Calls to current and former officials with the chamber and the Texarkana Regional Arts and Humanities Council -- the agencies jointly responsible for the statue -- yielded no clues to its whereabouts.
That doesn't mean the statue has been forgotten.
Toth's Trail of the Whispering Giants, which includes statues in Little Rock and Broken Bow, Okla., has become something of a cult phenomenon. Enthusiasts follow the trail, checking locations off a checklist as they go.
The Texarkana piece is on many older lists, and visitors arrive expecting to see the statue. A manila folder containing a photograph of the statue, a 1990 letter from Daniels announcing its removal and a Texarkana Gazette clipping detailing its plight is as close as they come.
The visitor traffic has slowed over the years, but there is still a steady trickle.
"We do occasionally still have people come in and want to know, 'Where's the big Indian?'" said Linda Vaughn, a supervisor at the travel information center. "That's what they call it, the big Indian."
It left an impression on those who saw it.
"It was awesome," Daniels recalled, even as the elements took their toll.
It might have been saved had it been moved inside or protected from the weather early on, but by the time it was moved, the damage was deeper than the cracked and weather-beaten face.
"It just stopped the weathering process," Shoptaw said about the move. "It was already pretty rotten in the center. It caught a lot of weather standing out in the open like it did. Probably, had it been in a drier climate with less humidity than we have in Arkansas and Texas, the life of it would have been longer."
Toth has settled down somewhat since his days traversing the country in a modified Dodge van, pausing to carve his statues. He spends most of his time in Florida, where he has a studio and two college-age daughters.
He has also moved on from his most well-known project. His most recent statue, number 73, is an effigy of St. Olaf, a medieval Hungarian king, that stands on the banks of the Danube River.
No. 74 will be along the Ganges River in India, near where Mother Teresa tended slum dwellers. Toth also has plans for sculptures in Jerusalem and at the site of Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland.
Most on his mind at the moment is a tribute to contemporary tragedies. He's creating a 50-foot depiction of a phoenix rising from the proverbial ash of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf oil spill.
The project is stalled for lack of support from city leaders.
Toth hasn't completely forsaken
his old work. He still revisits his monuments on request to give them a facelift, as he did in September in Broken Bow. He would have done the same for Texarkana, save for one thing: "They didn't ask."
It's a bit late for renovations now, but hope isn't lost for those waiting for the day when a 30-foot tall wooden American Indian head once again graces Texarkana.
"If there's someone really interested, absolutely," Toth said. "I would love to make something magnificent and wonderful and more durable."
That said, it wouldn't be a small commitment. Toth donates his time and the statues, but he asks that people kick in a couple of thousand dollars to help offset travel costs.
He would also need a tree, and not just any would do. Citizens would have to petition Sequoia National Park for a felled hardwood, which the park has done once for Toth, but only begrudgingly.
When you ask him to come down, just don't call him "that totem pole guy." It's a name he's bristled at throughout his career, and it's based on a fundamental misunderstanding of his work, he said.
His canvas is broader.
"I have a gift," he said. "God gave me a gift, and this is my mission in life, to chronicle the epic struggle of all man facing the pain of injustice, tyranny and all that."