575 Brown Road
Latodami Nature Center
Wexford, PA 15090
What is a Story Pole?
Story Poles are often mistaken as totem poles. A totem pole tells a tribe or family history, while a story pole tells Native American legends and folktales. Story poles have characters on both sides of the pole. Characters each have a story with a moral to each story. Story poles were used in the early days as a method of teaching children. The story tellers had to be careful to tell good stories to the children, for these were the only lessons they depended upon to raise good children.
In the beginning humans, the winged, the four footed and those that swim all talked one language and could converse and understand each other. Story tellers tell their stories from the characters on the pole. Each story teller may tell the story a little different, but the basic story will remain the same.
Story poles are mainly of the tribes of the North West. The North Park story pole is Snohomish from the Tulalip Reservation in the state of Washington.
The History of the North Park Story Pole
A Brief History of the Story Pole, North Park, Allegheny County, PA
Prepared by Ron J. Block
High on Parish Hill in North Park stands a remnant of the earliest days of the county parks. Battered by weather but still impressive in size and detail, this 40’ story pole deserves a better fate than its former partner in South Park, which fell victim to age, vandalism and neglect and was unceremoniously taken down some years ago.
The county parks were developed beginning in 1927, at a time when the romance of the west was still strong. Both parks had deer and buffalo herds roaming over large tracts of land, and Native Americans were brought in as caretakers. The buffalo herd at South Park is a reminder of these days. The North Park buffalo herd was kept not far from where the pole now stands; the fence is still there, slowly rusting away. The story poles were another reminder of the western traditions. The National Park movement was young and growing strong, especially in the West, and the county parks looked to these parks for inspiration.
A story pole differs from a totem pole, in that a totem pole tells a tribe or family history, while a story pole illustrates Native American legends and folktales. The story poles were commissioned by Edward Vose Babcock, the Allegheny County Commissioner known as the ‘Father of the County Parks’ for his vision and efforts in getting the parks established. Babcock was a successful Pittsburgh lumberman with business interests throughout the east and in the Pacific Northwest. Babcock commissioned four of the story poles in 1928. Two of the poles were for the newly-created Allegheny County parks. The other two, also 40 ft. high, were donated to the city of Everett, Washington, which had ties to his lumber-shipping operations.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted on Oct. 24, 1928 that the poles were to arrive in McKeesport within two weeks with a shipment of lumber. They were stored for the winter, and installed in the parks in the spring of 1929, under the supervision of Parks Director Paul B. Riis.
The poles were carved of cedar by Tulalip Chief Wha-Cah-Dub, aka William Shelton (1868-1938), who spent his life documenting and preserving the ways and lore of the Native American tribes. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Shelton spent about 6 months carving the poles. He was one of the most notable carvers of totem or story poles, and is often credited with keeping the tradition alive at a time of great change for the Native Americans. He was 60 years old when he carved the Allegheny County poles. There are few of his poles still in existence.
“I know the only future for my people is assimilation by the white brothers. I think we can teach them some things too. We are the children of nature. We are closest to the trees and the birds. We can teach the love of nature and the great, generous spirit of the Potlatch feast…. “Our race must vanish so our spirit may live.” ~ William Shelton
Cedar is a durable wood, but it doesn’t last forever. For many years the poles were brightly painted, which helped to keep weather at bay, but now the remaining pole shows the weathered grey of the cedar, with just a few hints of color. The window of opportunity for preservation is short. Damage from weather and insects is obvious and if unchecked will mean the end of this interesting survivor of the earliest days of the park.
The Story in Our Story Pole
This story is about two Eagle brothers and the Mink. The Eagle brother were very strong and active and very skillful hunters and were well known in their country not only because of their great prowess, but because their only sister was a young lady of great beauty.
When the Mink heard of the Eagles’ pretty sister, he decided that he would visit the Eagles and try his best to obtain their goodwill and permission to marry her. Accordingly, he started out that very day to visit the Eagles and he no sooner got there than he began talking about his many talents and deceiving the Eagles to believe that he was great and good; a very fine fellow. He stayed with the Eagles for quite a long time and when he felt certain that he had duly impressed them with his grandness, he humbly asked the girl if she would marry him and she replied that she would be honored to if her brothers consented. So the Mink talked to the Eagle brothers and they agreed that the Mink would be very acceptable as a brother-in-low since he seemed to be such a very capable and talented fellow. The Mink and the girl were then married and they made their home with the Eagle brothers.
Now, each day before starting out on their hunt, the Eagle brothers would give themselves a “try-out” and this play often became rather rough sport when one or the other was able to make use of his great claws. Mink had watched them in their play a number of times and this particular day he said to his wife, “I believe I will play with your brothers today, for I am certain that I am a great deal quicker than they are and I will be able to dodge them.” His wife entreated him not to play with the Eagles, for they were too rough and far too quick for him and would very likely kill him if they caught him in their great claws. The Mink, however, would not listen to his wife’s advice, but entered into the play.
Since the Eagles believed all he had said, they thought that he was as active and strong as they were. Mink had scarcely joined the play when he found himself lying flat on his back with claws as sharp as arrow points tearing his flesh! One of the Eagles picked him up and carried him to the top of a tall tree and not until then did the Eagles realize that they had really hurt Mink. They immediately took him down to his wife where she put him to bed and nursed his wounds and, after considerable time, he became well enough to walk again. Then the Eagles came to him and said: “Now Mink, leave this house and don’t come back again, for we have discovered that you have been lying to us. We believed that you were strong and active and we have found you to be a mere weakling. Therefore, you have deceived us and you will have to give up your wife, leave us and go back to your own country.” And so the Mink, through his foolish lying, lost his beautiful wife and his new home.
So, children, let the story of the Mink be a lesson to you. Never lie, but always speak the truth, for although you seem to gain by lying, you will lose all in the end.