Seventy-two-year-old totem pole gets makeover

By Arthur Foulkes
Terre Haute, Indiana (AP) September 2010

Terre Haute's mystic Tootooch, or “Thunderbird,” is getting a much-needed makeover.

The 20-foot totem pole that faces South Sixth and Washington streets is getting a fresh paint job and being restored from the inside out.

“It's part of our history,” said Tracy Pruitt, owner of Pruitt Properties, which is donating the restoration work on the 72-year-old piece of art. “This is a historic landmark.”

It has been at least 10 years since the totem pole, which stands on the front lawn of the Vigo County Historical Society building at 1411 S. Sixth St., was last restored, Pruitt estimated. He and a crew of several of his employees are all donating their time to restore the longtime Terre Haute treasure.

“It's in pretty bad shape,” Pruitt said while looking at the totem pole recently.

Several employees of Pruitt Properties, which does restoration work, were pulling rotted wood from inside the totem pole. They plan to use a leaf blower to dry the inside of the pole and then fill the hollow sections with foam and chalk, Pruitt said.

“The wood's rotting inside,” Pruitt said. A hole in the top of the totem pole has been allowing rain to enter the pole, he said. That will now be closed, Pruitt added.

The exterior of the totem pole will also get a fresh coat of paint, Pruitt said. There are seven different colors and they will all be matched to the original colors, he said.

Tootooch is the name of the winged “thunderbird” at the top of the totem pole. According to, an online archive of books about religion, mythology and folklore, Tootooch is a “powerful, mystic emblem having its origin among the native tribes of British Columbia” in Canada.

“Keep this emblem always and you will be under the protection of the Thunder Bird wherever you may be. It will bring you the best that life has to offer. Your business dealings will prosper, the course of your love will run smooth and goodwill toward your fellow creatures will fill your heart and will be returned a hundredfold,” the website states.

Totem poles were never known to be a part of the culture of native tribes in this part of North America. Rather, they were – and continue to be part of the culture of American Indian tribes from the Northwest.

The Vigo County Historical Society's totem pole came to the area thanks to Mrs. Chapman J. Root, who ordered the pole produced for the family's Allendale estate in the 1930s. According to past editions of Terre Haute newspapers, the pole was made from a pine tree that had grown in southern California and was transported here aboard a railroad flatcar.

Pine is a soft wood, which has contributed to the deterioration of the totem pole, Pruitt noted.

The totem pole was carved by C. Huston Isaacs, an industrial arts and science teacher at Sarah Scott Junior High School, and his friend, Charles Eggleston. The totem pole was placed in a wooded and floral area of the Root estate in Allendale and stayed there until 1963, when it was moved to the Historical Society property as gift from the Root family.

At the base of the pole, Isaacs and Eggleston carved a bear, a symbol of strength. Above the bear is the figure of a “tribal ancestor” holding a box containing the sun, moon and stars. Atop them both – and several smaller figures – is Tootooch, the powerful thunderbird god.

“People kind of associate the totem pole with the (Historical Society) building,” said Barbara Carney, assistant director of the Historical Society museum.

Pruitt, a life member of the Historical Society, said he recalls seeing the totem pole when his mother would bring him to the historical museum years ago. He still has a postcard produced locally showing the totem pole decades ago, he said.

“It's not every day you restore a totem pole,” Pruitt said. “I think it's important. It's history.”