That Pierre the Voyageur has survived 50 years along Seventh Avenue in Two Harbors is testament to the people who built him. A young stucco apprentice for Art and Emery Carlstrom, Gary Swanson said Pierre was “well built” and he isn’t surprised he’s lasted this long. He expects him to last as long as the many
stucco homes in the area nearing 100 years old. Terry Johnson is a former owner of the property, having purchased it with his wife, Louise, from father-in-law Stanley Nelson. Johnson said he has painted Pierre twice and tried to keep up on repairs. He says some more work is needed. Gigi Aae, who owns the Voyageur Motel next to where Pierre stands, also looks after him. She has volunteered to do work on him. Swanson said it will take some doing to get the right stucco mix. And all of those
who want to preserve him are a bit leery of doing
it when he is actually owned by two Duluth
developers. They say Pierre is safe as long
as they have any say, but Mike Polcaro
says he wouldn’t be able to “speak for
new owners” should the lot, and thus
Pierre, be sold. Polcaro and his partner
turned the lot over to a realtor this spring.
The asking price is $189,000.
Stanley Nelson opened up the Voyageur Museum in the summer of 1959 and spent the next winter putting up a motel on the property. Those who worked on the motel were later faced with the unique project of building Pierre, a 20-foot replica of a French voyageur.
Ed Worner did the basic framing around two telephone poles. Gary Swanson worked with the stucco experts Art and Emery Carlstrom on the motel and then the statue. And the finishing touch, the wiring for a moving head, speaker for a mouth, and eyes that lit up was up to Art Lindstrom, owner of the Electric Shop downtown that is today’s True Value.
Lindstrom, who now lives in Plano, Texas, had the contract to wire the motel and then was asked to do the statue. “We had a lot of fun on that project,” Art said. He’s “surprised he’s still standing after all these years.”
Two simple light bulbs sat behind Pierre’s slits for eyes, providing a “creepy” or “eerie” look, many who recalled Pierre’s early days said.
The property owners from 1975 to 1991, Terry and Louise Johnson, said a bearing in the motor that moved the head seized up around 1980. It isn’t clear when Pierre stopped talking or the lights went out of his head but it was likely around that time, the
Room for repairs
For having turned 50 in June, Pierre actually isn’t in that bad of shape. His feet need some reshaping. There are a few holes to patch, cracks to fill. His right shoulder may need some surgery. It’s pocked and sunken a bit from the burden of snow and ice over the years.
Terry Johnson would like to see Pierre repainted once fixes are made. Both he and Gigi Aae, owner of the adjoining motel, are trying to recruit Gary Swanson to do the work. Swanson would be right for the job, he worked on the exterior in 1960 as an apprentice to Art Carlstrom, who Swanson called an “artist” when it came to the finer features of Pierre. Art finessed the jacket details, the hands, the feet.
The stucco work on the Voyageur Motel is an indication of the kind of mastery they had. That isn’t a brick motel. It’s stucco designed to look like bricks and mortar. The team also plastered the entire motel interior. Both techniques are rarely in use for construction these days, Swanson said.
More extensive work on repairing the motor that moves the head, the speaker that allowed him to talk, or the lights for the eyes, would likely be up to whoever might eventually own the property and Pierre.
Former owner Johnson remains in close contact with the current owners, who encourage any preservation of Pierre.
Terry Johnson continues to take care of Pierre despite having sold the property he stands on in 1991. Johnson bought the property from Pierre’s creator, father-in-law Stanley Nelson. So it was especially frustrating when the paddle Pierre held was stolen a few years ago. He had just refurbished it. “I imagine it’s sitting above a fireplace in a remote cabin somewhere,” Johnson said.
He lives just behind Pierre and can watch him much like Voyageur Motel owner Gigi Aae does. She purchased the motel from Johnson in 1996.
“Some town kids were always trying to knock it down,” she said of the paddle. “I chased them away three times ... They came back in the middle of the night and got it ... There were just little splintered pieces left.”
The only other notable act of vandalism near Pierre was the 1971 theft of the machine that made tokens for visitors.
Pierre’s construction begins
with the two utility poles used
for his legs. As Terry Johnson tells
it, the poles are about five feet into the ground
and reach up to Pierre’s shoulders. Ed Worner set the poles
and built a frame around them. It was wrapped in galvanized
metal lathe by James Erickson and received two coats of portland
cement stucco by Art and Emery Carlstrom and Gary Swanson. A final third coat was colorized with the tan you see today. Johnson has repainted Pierre twice. Given all the material made to form the statue, it’s understandable why it weights 8 tons. “He’s a big fellow,” Swanson said.
Emery Carlstrom says Stanley Nelson got the design for Pierre off an envelope and that throughout the project he “didn’t quite know what he wanted” but the end result was satisfying. Pierre stands at 20 feet, just taller than the famed Paul Bunyan statue at Lake Bemidji. “Stan would be the one to try and outdo somebody,” Swanson said.
While solidly built to last these 50 years without major structural failings, moving Pierre to another location would be a challenge none of the builders who are still alive want to begin to contemplate.
For anyone with fond childhood memories of Pierre actually having a conversation with you and calling you by name, stop reading. OK. A little “Wizard of Oz” magic was used via the booth you see in this old postcard. The booth opened up and two-way mirror let someone inside the booth know a child was approaching. And if a parent slipped a note with the names of the children, the booth operator would then offer personal sayings through the speaker in Pierre’s head.
Shirley Martinson, the daughter of Voyageur Museum founder and Pierre creator Stanley Nelson,
said Pierre is part of “thrilling” childhood memories surrounding
the operation. She said the tourist attraction was “really a hub”
and “a going place” in the 1960s.
There were all the voyageur-themed attractions, like
canoes or the log cabin information center, and the many
donated items in the museum.
Perhaps the most thrilling for visitors were the live
animals, including bears that ran around and jumped
into water tubs.
In 1961, two cubs escaped and it
was the ingenuity of two boys, Jim Hansen
and Armand Bourdage, to coax them
from a tree in a Two Harbors
neighborhood using a box
and stick trap laced
The two split
Those who grew up
with Pierre, and especially
family of Stanley Nelson, bristle
at the relatively new moniker for
Pierre: The Pantsless Voyageur. The
reference isn’t likely to go away any
time soon since there is now a
Facebook page using that title.
Explanations have been
brought forth over the years as to how accurately Pierre depicts the French voyageur. They were short and stocky
like that, family members say,
and the style of dress is historical.
Thomas Bacig, a professor of
humanities and classics at the University
of Minnesota Duluth and a specialist in frontier history in Canada and the United States, said the “artist that did the statue might have been a bit more careful to suggest clothing under deer skin leggings or boots.” He said the leggings covered a tighter fitting undergarment, or breech cloth.
Still, Bacig says, “I believe the replica does portray the characteristic voyageur apparel.” He referred to a statue of Joliet may have inspired the makers of Pierre “though the sculptor of the Joliet statue
(at right) was more careful to suggest the cloth that lay beneath the leggings or boots.”
He said perhaps Pierre, “like the emperor, needed someone to point out that he forgot to put on his pants.”
Read the article: Silent for nearly 30 years, Pierre speaks