Located on the campus of Pierce College in Woodland Hills, Old Trapper’s Lodge is an eccentric collection of western folk art sculptures from artist John Ehn. The statues are a reflection of personal experiences, myths, and tall tales derived from Ehn’s obsession with the wild west.
Ehn was born and raised in Violet, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and spent most of his life as a trapper for the state. He also served as a game warden, publishing books and offering courses through mail until 1940, when spinal inflammation forced him to give up trapping.
After moving to California in 1941, Ehn opened a motel with an Old West theme. In addition to its decorated interior, which featured a collection of animal skins, tools, and trapping paraphernalia, the motel was adorned with Ehn’s sculpted figures. The grounds were made up of several components: Boot Hill Cemetery, intended as a family memorial with life masks of Ehn’s relatives; the Old West Mooseum depicting life-size figures of Western heroes and villains; and an exterior he called the “City of the Dead.”
As the motel grew, Ehn began a collection of paintings based on Native American and Indian mythology, folk tales, and stories. These were eventually incorporated into his sculpted figures, which depict archetypal characters from these tales.
In 1951, Ehn hired Claude Bell of Cabazon Dinosaur and Knott’s Berry Farm fame to create a giant statue of a trapper that would catch motorists’ attention. Bell began by constructing a strong wire armature that he covered in cement. He then added brightly painted faces, arms, and legs.
Once Bell was finished, Ehn carved out the rest of his property to create a full “Boot Hill Cemetery,” complete with cowboys, Indians, saloon girls, and miners. These crudely crafted figures would be Ehn’s signature art, as he continued to sculpt them until his death in 1981.
These statues are a true work of art, and should be preserved for future generations to enjoy. However, they are currently fenced off from public view and are not accessible to visitors.
Despite the efforts of local historians and a coalition of preservation groups, these pieces of California State Landmark art are threatened by a decision to deaccession them for relocation to Valley Relics Museum in the San Fernando Valley. The decision is currently being made behind closed doors, with no press coverage and no discussion of the issues.
It is crucial that the history of the statues be included in the discussion and that the community be included in this process. Ultimately, the artwork should be transferred to an institution that is committed to preserving and interpreting it.
As a member of the community, I hope you will support this cause and continue to protect these iconic works of art. You can do your part by calling or writing to Valley Relics Museum (which is located next to the Lodge) and urging them to preserve these statues as California State Landmark art.