KALAMA — After weathering decades in the sun, wind and rain on the banks of the Columbia River, it’s no surprise to those restoring the Lelooska totem poles that the work will take years.
About five years since the Port of Kalama began weighing its options for the aging poles, the rehabilitation process is underway, with the family of their carver Chief Lelooska (Don Smith) on board.
Lelooska carved the poles displayed at the port’s Marine Park in the early 1960s. He died in 1996, and his younger brother, Chief Tsungani (Fearon Smith), and other family members involved with the Lelooska Foundation and Cultural Center will work to refurbish his well-loved works.
“I think they’ve been a really important centerpiece for that community and having them preserved is quite the undertaking,” said Mariah Stoll-Smith Reese, executive director of the foundation and Tsungani’s daughter. “We’re grateful to the Port of Kalama for committing to preserve those because it’s a long process, a many-year process. We’re not really into the meat of it yet.”
Two of the port-owned poles — the Lelooska Campfire totem pole previously displayed on Broadway in Longview and the 65-foot, tallest standing pole at the port — are drying out at the Lelooska Foundation in Ariel.
The Campfire pole was delivered to the foundation right after it was taken down in May 2020. Stoll-Smith Reese said the pole is nearly ready for restoration work.
The 65-foot pole was taken down in November when a large crane was already at the port for other work, said Dan Polacek, port spokesman. The pole is drying out in a cargo container the port set up at the foundation. Once work on the two poles is completed, the port will take down and restore the other two, one at a time, he said.
The 140-foot pole will be restored on site at the port because it is not structurally sound enough to be moved, Polacek said. Once refurbished, it will be hung in the port’s Mountain Timber Marketplace, currently under construction by Olympia- based FORMA Construction between Marine and Louis Rasmussen parks.
The tallest pole was taken down in September 2018 as a safety precaution, after an engineering assessment found a large gust of wind could topple it.
In September, workers covered the pole in a special heat shrink wrap to help dry it out. Earlier this year, the port contracted with FORMA Construction for structural restoration work, Polacek said. A Seattle-based company, the Rot Doctor will inject a malleable epoxy to help fill in the rotted areas and strengthen the pole, he said. The Lelooska Foundation will complete any re-carving and surface work.
Stoll-Smith Reese said she and Tsungani met with port officials and the contractor last week to look at the 140-foot pole. The foundation had planned to work on it last, but it had absorbed more rain from lying down, she said.
“Drying out takes a long time and that pole has a lot of drying to do,” Stoll-Smith Reese said. “They’ll do the sealing and stabilizing and we’ll come in and do the painting.”
Acknowledging the uncertain timeline and final cost of the work, Polacek said the port and port commissioners are committed to spending whatever it takes on restoring the landmarks.
“The poles have become synonymous with the port and city of Kalama,” he said. “The port made a commitment to the Wineberg family to restore and maintain those. We want to honor our commitment and honor that iconic part of community by fully restoring them.”
The 140-foot pole was commissioned by William Wineberg for display at the World’s Fair but was not completed. The poles laid on the ground for several years before a local effort to finish the job and erect them at Marine Park began in 1974.
For about 45 years, the port leased the poles from the Wineberg estate for $1 per year before the family donated them to the agency in 2019.
In December 2020, the port commissioners approved a contract with the Lelooska Foundation to restore the poles.
The commissioners also approved a contract with Tsungani to carve two 6-foot welcoming figures for $12,000 apiece. As of August, both figures were delivered to the port and are displayed in the administrative building’s entrance. The port plans to get metal casts of the statues to flank the Westin Amphitheater, Polacek said.
“It’s another way of honoring our shared past with Lelooska art and culture and furthering those tribal elements that have been a part of the port,” he said.
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