Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Despite the fact that no native Illinois tribes or any other Indians built it, the massive totem pole standing in the small town of Abingdon, known as “Big Daddy,” is pretty impressive.
Billed as the tallest totem pole “east of the Rockies,” the 83-foot wooden monumental sculpture was carved by artist Steve Greenquist in 1969. When the project was conceived, town fathers believed that it would be the tallest totem pole in the world and were confident it would attract tourists to the out-of-the-way community, located 12 miles south of Galesburg.
Unfortunately, just a few years later a Canadian town snatched away the town’s claim to fame. Today, there are least a half-dozen totems taller than the Abingdon pole including a 173-foot one in Alert Bay, British Columbia, a 140-foot pole in Kalama, Washington and a 137.5-foot monument in Kake, Alaska.
Despite that, the Abingdon totem remains a popular roadside attraction. The pole, carved of red cedar, stands in the center of a landscaped median on the town’s Main Street, adjacent to a city park.
At the top are the words, “Abingdon, Illinois,” painted on a representation of wings. Carved into the length of the pole are various images of objects, people and animals, including portraits of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, ears of corn and the state flower (a violet). Near the base, the pole has another wide set of wings in the shape of the state of Illinois covered with a variety of designs.
Greenquist, who was sponsored by the Abingdon Development Council, was only 18 years old and a student at Illinois State University when he conceived and created the work. Since 1998, he has been a high school art teacher in Ankeny, Iowa.
There is, however, a certain ‘fish-out-of-water’ aspect to the pole. Totems are monumental sculptures carved by the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest coastal region (British Columbia, northern Washington, Alaska).
While no one is certain of their purpose, it is generally believed the carvings recounted local legends, familial ties and important tribal events. The native Illini people had no tradition for building totem poles and probably wouldn’t have a clue as to why it’s in Abingdon.
Nor would anyone else.