Carvings reflect SH heritage, ‘community’

Sean C. Morgan

Bill Baitinger’s first impression of Sweet Home came in 2003 as he drove west from Bend and passed two carved wooden statues of loggers standing at Shea Point, beside Foster Lake.

“We were looking for a house,” Baitinger said. “The first thing I saw was the two statues up there at Shea Point.”

Several years later, the statues were gone – victims of decay.

Baitinger, a retired landscape contractor who had joined the Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, decided to make an effort to get them replaced. He talked with Brian Carroll, Linn County Parks director, who worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which controls the land around Foster Lake, on the idea.

Baitinger said he was going to start collecting donations for the project, but that involved filing forms with the IRS for nonprofit status. He talked to his wife.

“We decided let’s do it on our own,” Baitinger said. “That’s the only way something’s going to get done – is if you get up and do it. To me, when we came into Sweet Home, that was the first thing I saw. It’s symbolic. I just wanted to see it come back.”

He learned that Diane Gerson was planning to plant a tree at Shea Point in memory of her husband, Gus Gerson, who died in October of 2014.

Gerson and Baitinger met in 2006 while playing racquetball at the city court at Northside Park. The Baitingers and Gersons started socializing and became good friends.

Gerson was a member of the Kiwanis, Amvets, the SHARE Tourism Committee and the Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.

When Gerson had to resign from the chamber board for health reasons, Baitinger took his place.

“You can’t beat him as a friend and his generosity,” Baitinger said.

Gerson had been a superintendent of recreation for the city of Pasadena, Calif., before retiring to Sweet Home in 1994.

“Gus loved the outdoors,” Diane Gerson said. “He loved Sweet Home.”

Baitinger contacted her and asked, “Why don’t we put up those statues in his memory?”

“When Bill asked me about it, I was all for it,” Gerson said Sunday, June 26, at a dedication ceremony for the statues.

Gerson and Baitinger each contributed $1,200 toward the cost of carving the statues. The Kiwanis Club, of which Gus Gerson had been a member, paid $235 for a memorial plaque.

Baitinger originally got quotes from a sculptor in Bandon for $7,000, but while on a camping trip at the coast, he saw wood carver Tom Castaneda’s work outside his Rusty Frog Gallery in Winchester Bay. Castaneda is a regular participant in the Reedsport Chain Saw Carving Festival, one of the oldest in the nation, held every year since 2000. He said he’s carved all over the United States and in Japan, Great Britain and Germany.

Baitinger and his wife, Mary Ann, looked over the work Castaneda had in his shop. Baitinger showed the artist a drawing by local artist Heather Strubar of what he wanted the statues to look like. They agreed that Castaneda would do the carvings.

The larger of the statues depicts an 11-foot-tall logger, holding an axe; the other is a gold miner inspecting the contents of his pan.

Castaneda already had a redwood log, from Lakeside, that was big enough to create two statues.

Castaneda went to work on them in February, mixed in with some other projects he was doing, he said.

He finished about a month ago.

The original statues were carved by Milton Dodge, a local logger, in 1979. The Sweet Home High School Key Club helped by painting them. They were set up at Shea Point around 1980. They were removed around 2007 because they were deteriorating, and taken to East Linn Museum.

Dodge was in the crowd Sunday for the dedication of the replacements.

The replacement project was a group effort, Baitinger said.

The City of Sweet Home broke up and removed the original concrete pad, which was cracked and deteriorating.

Mike Campbell and JDC Contractors, Inc., built the new one with concrete donated by Randy Haley.

Roger Emmert provided a backhoe to hang the statues, which he said weighed about 1,200 pounds each.

Mike Hall and the Point Restaurant donated money to help finish a walkway to the statues.

Gerson called the finished product “beautiful” Sunday, as she surveyed the scene – about 30 people, including her own family and community members milling around the statues.

“It’s so perfect for the community,” she said. “I love the fact that everybody contributed. This is what Sweet Home is all about.”

It was a satisfying conclusion for Baitinger as well.

“(Gus Gerson) was my best friend,” he said. “That’s why I did it for him.”

– Staff writer Scott Swanson contributed to this story.