June 19, 2023

Photo Essay: A Wellness Check on the Old Trapper's Lodge Statues, Slated for Removal from Pierce College

In 2013, I reported on a collection of statues at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, California that had been handmade by amateur sculptor John Ehn. 

A descendent of pioneers, he'd dubbed himself "The Old Trapper" (or "O.T.") and built a motel (or "lodge") in the Sun Valley neighborhood of the San Fernando Valley in 1941.

Ehn had no training besides briefly shadowing Claude Bell (of Knott's Berry Farm/Cabazon Dinosaurs fame)—but he took it upon himself to tell stories of the Old West through his art, using his family members as models to portray scenes from pioneer family life. 

"O.T." died in 1981—and his heirs sold the motel property (or, more accurately, were forced to sell it) to the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority for the expansion of the airport runways. 

The statues were relocated to Pierce College in 1988. 

They were always a little bit hard to find—but now they're almost entirely hidden from view. 

I was driving in circles, saying, "We are so close" and "It's right around here"—but the problem was, a huge fence had been erected, obscuring the Trapper's Lodge statues site completely from public view. 

I'd been worried about the site since I'd heard that current students had objected to the shocking nature of the statues and that Pierce College had moved to dismantle the landmark. 
Some items—mostly gravestones from the "Boot Hill" area, as far as I can tell—were haphazardly removed from the site (with the college's permission) in 2022 and relocated to Valley Relics Museum

Others have remained in place—but for how long? The family of John Ehn had been given a deadline of October 2022 to find a place where they could relocate the monumental statues. That was eight months ago.

There's been a lot of concern among preservationists that the items being moved be handled with conservation in mind—especially given their age and fragile nature—and properly accessioned. 
But that's not really how Valley Relics usually does things—which is why it's able to turn on a dime to get a crane to save giant neon signs and scoop up other historic items that would otherwise end up in a landfill.

What would've been ideal would have been for the statues to remain in place and for the college to issue a contextual statement—embracing debate about the shocking and disturbing imagery, but explaining why it's important. 

Less ideal—but preferable to the current situation—would've been to relocate the entire collection to one institution, where it could remain on public view. 

 The Old Trapper by sculptor Claude Bell

After all, landmarks are public resources—and people should have access to them. 

Even less preferable is to break the collection up—which is what's happening now. (It's still better than the worst-case scenario, which is losing everything and saving nothing.)
The preservationists at Esotouric have been thankfully banging the drum about this for a while now. I recommend reading their extensive reporting on the issue by clicking here

What I can report on is the inaccessible nature of the site—and how incredibly overgrown and unkempt it is. 

I actually had a hard time finding my way around because the paths had been completely obscured by vegetation (mostly black mustard). We practically had to bushwhack our way through. 

I can't remember if the statue of Ehn's granddaughter (far left, above) was missing her left arm when I first visited 10 years ago. And I don't have a photo that clearly shows it. 

The destruction to the statue of Ehn's son has worsened over the last 10 years, as more of the right side of his face disappears (though you can still see some of the human teeth inside of his mouth). 

The Boot Hill is pretty much decimated. 

Those wooden slab headstones were probably the most fragile pieces in the entire collection—and they appear to have been yanked off of their metal supports, some being split in half (or worse). 

It's hard to believe this is a landmark, with the way it's been treated (and neglected).  
Part of me is glad it's so hard to get into the site—so at least it won't fall prey to vandalism (either intentional, from those who object to the depictions, or unintentional, from partying college kids). But some of the worst destruction so far was allowed to happen. 

I don't know what Valley Relics' plans are for the items that they acquired—if they're on display now or not, and if they ever will be. I have to think that the intentions were good, and that they thought they were basically saving these pieces from the landfill (which may be where the large statues end up if an institution doesn't take them). 

Watch the film above to see the state of the site in 2022 and for detailed documentation of the desecration of the Boot Hill—as seen through the eyes of Ehn's granddaughters.

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  1. Thank you for visiting the derelict Old Trapper and his kin, a landmark that has been impossible to access since March 2022, when Pierce College guards started telling visitors they needed permission from administrators, which was impossible to obtain. It's heartbreaking to see the complete neglect of the site, and I hope it won't be this way forever.

    Just one note about Valley Relics and their removal and partial destruction of the Boot Hill sculptures: VR was in discussions with the college and Ehn family, but formal permission had not been granted to take anything off site. When one of their group posted photographs to Facebook showing sculptures piled in the back of a pickup truck with a boot on top, like dead big game, the Ehn family was distressed and told them to stop. And the landmark has been broken up ever since.

    If you can find out where the missing gravestones are, and in what condition, please do! The Old Trapper's Lodge signage material that's been on view at Valley Relics is not part of the landmark, and was obtained through different channels.

  2. This is so distressing to read. Many thanks to you and Kim/Esotouric for continuing to keep us up to date on what's happening.