In the latest installment of Clark Asks, the Columbian’s online project that lets readers enlist reporters to answer all their burning questions, one reader posed an inquiry about a historic, now-defunct restaurant.
“What was the history of the totem pole that was at the old Totem Pole Restaurant at the corner of 78th Street and Highway 99? Where did it end up?”
An excellent question from Columbian reader Debbie Speer, who followed up to say that she and her husband, Paul, used to eat breakfast at the Totem Pole Restaurant in the 1980s.
“We’d sit next to the atrium where the totem pole, looking as if it had a story to tell, was nestled among ferns and foliage,” she wrote in an email. “The totem pole itself was maybe 4 feet tall with no obvious paint on it. To my recollection, there was no explanation of the totem pole’s origin and history, and I’ve often wondered about both its past and its future.”
Turns out, there were multiple totem poles at Totem Pole Restaurant. It shuttered in 1998 after 70 years in operation, making it at the time the oldest eatery in Clark County.
One of the poles is still in the region, standing in the living room of a Woodland couple. Another, the largest, is still in Washington. The location of the others remains a mystery.
One (at least) still local
When Bob Nelson saw that the Clark Asks question about the totem pole had won our voting round, he reached out to help us piece together the puzzle. He invited me over to his home to see the wooden landmark firsthand.
It’s a testament to the decor of the Nelsons’ home that a 14-foot totem pole isn’t even the first thing I noticed when I walked into the living room on Sept. 19.
The airy, lofty room feels more like a gallery than a residence. Everywhere you look, art and artifacts from Native American tribes in North and Central America are on display, mounted on walls and arranged in shadow boxes and hanging from the ceiling and organized on shelves and displayed in windows.
I asked Nelson, whose heritage traces back to the Pueblo Sandia tribe in Colorado, to ballpark the number of Native pieces in his home. He couldn’t. He could say, however, that the totem pole from Totem Pole Restaurant was unequivocally his favorite.
When he heard in the fall of 1998 that the restaurant was planning to auction off its decor, his passion for Native pieces was already well underway. It had started back in his childhood, when his family would dig for arrowheads along the banks of the Lewis River.
“I saw that there was an auction going on, and I thought, ‘Gasp! They’ve got totem poles. That’d be cool,’ ” Nelson said.
He doesn’t remember how much he paid for the piece, only that it was less than he’d expected.
“I do remember I took a bunch of cash with me. I remember I didn’t spend it all on the totem pole. I was very pleased. I had no idea what it’s worth. I still have no idea what it’s worth,” he said.
“I was done, I was happy — I’d bought this totem pole, and I’d done what I’d set out to do, and I got it for a price that was more than fair,” he continued. “I had one ear on the auction, and this,” he gestured at an enormous piece made up of wood planks adhered to his ceiling, “Was going pretty reasonable, so I got involved in the bidding and ended up buying that.”
You’d be forgiven for missing the totem pole upon first walking into this room, but only because this piece is the first thing you’d actually see. The 10-by-12-foot work, painted in primary colors and taking up the majority of a sizable vaulted ceiling, dominates an indomitable room.
The painting used to serve as a wall screen between the back door of the restaurant and the highway, Nelson said. It sat in his garage for years because he wasn’t sure what to do with it.
“One day I’m in my recliner here, and I thought, ‘I wonder if it’ll fit on my ceiling?’ ” he said.
I wish I knew the identity of the artist, for both the totem pole and the painting. So does Nelson — he never found out. I made a few calls to Gary Pevey, the owner of the restaurant when it closed, hoping to find out more about the pieces that once adorned his business, but he never called back.
Where are the rest of them?
When Speer asked about the totem pole at Totem Pole Restaurant, she specifically wanted to know the fate of a smaller, unpainted piece. On that, I’m afraid to tell her, I don’t know.
The one in Nelson’s living room, while an impressive piece, wasn’t the biggest totem pole at the site by a long shot. One of the remaining three was huge — more than 50 feet tall.
I chased a rumor that the totem pole was purchased by the owner of a local towing company, who then shipped it to a cabin in Wisconsin. The company’s owner didn’t return my phoned inquiry. So I, running up against my deadline, decided to let that mystery lie.
I filed this story with my editor. The layout team (sorry, guys) designed it on the newspaper’s page, placing the photos and slotting the words into neat columns based on the story’s length. It was ready to go.
Then — five days after my deadline — I got a call from Cindy Dickinson Stanley. The Dickinsons had owned Totem Pole Restaurant from 1961 to 1976, before they sold it to the Peveys.
Stanley’s father, Chuck Dickinson, had commissioned the pieces from Native American artists around the Pacific Northwest, she said. She’d worked in the restaurant growing up and was 19 years old when her family sold it, she said, along with all the decor.
But the Dickinson family ended back up with a totem pole the same way the Nelsons did. Remember that auction? One of the Dickinson kids secretly attended, bought the big totem pole, and returned it to his parents.
“We found our son had gone to the auction and found the largest one,” Marilyn Dickinson, Chuck’s wife and onetime co-owner of the restaurant, said. “It was a lovely surprise. We never dreamed, I never even thought about saving one of those.”
The 55-foot piece comes with a lot of memories attached.
“The Totem Pole was one of the very few restaurants in town,” Dickinson added. “A lot of people have so many memories of spending all their special birthdays, so many holidays there.”
Now, the enormous totem pole sits outside the Dickinson family lake house in Mason County, where it’s become something of a landmark.
“Boaters drive by all the time, and they’ll stop and point and look and take pictures,” Cindy Dickinson Stanley said.
So with that, we’ve tracked down the biggest totem pole from Totem Pole Restaurant. Which leaves us with one major mystery: Who’s the artist behind it, and the rest of the pieces that once adorned the eatery?
“Mom told me recently my dad had those commissioned, and she couldn’t really remember which person built which of the totem poles and the carvings, ” Stanley said.
Chuck Dickinson died in 2011. Marilyn Dickinson said the largest totem pole might have been completed by famed Pacific Northwest artist Chief Lelooska. I reached out to the Lelooska Foundation to ask about it, and the executive director clarified that Chief Lelooska did not make any of the totem poles at the restaurant.
Do you, reader, know anything about the artist or artists who worked on the pieces at Totem Pole Restaurant?
Please shoot me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to give them their due.