My friendship with sculptor Pete Helzer began shortly after moving to Eugene. Our spouses work at Lane Community College and we met at a faculty social, before the pandemic when socials were still a regular occurrence. This August, I had the opportunity to visit Helzer in his studio, where he was working on his latest project: a life-sized bronze sculpture of Louis Southworth (1830-1917).
The sculpture, a seated portrait of Southworth with fiddle in hand, will be installed in Waldport’s newly announced 12-acre park, Louis Southworth Park. Helzer projects that the sculpture will be finished at the end of the month but the park won’t be completed until summer 2024 at the earliest. In the meantime, Helzer’s Southworth will be temporarily displayed at the Historic Alsea Bay Bridge Interpretive Center in Waldport.
Helzer’s studio/foundry is located in an old barn on his property in Dexter, southeast of Eugene. When I visited, the clay statue was finished except for a few details of folds in the coat. Helzer has a good grasp of anatomy and has made enough sculptures at this point—over 200—that sculpting the figure is “the easy part.” It’s about 1/3 of the job, he says. The other 2/3 has to do with preparing to pour the bronze. It’s a multi-step process that includes “chopping” the figure into pieces in order to create molds into which molten bronze can eventually be poured. The final bronze sculpture will consist of 20 separate sections that have been welded back together.
Sculpting the figure may be easy but the fiddle was another story, says Helzer. The exact architecture of the instrument is far different from the nonlinear, organic shapes of a body. Making the torso look natural while holding the fiddle was tricky, too. The pose is taken from one of the few available photographs of Southworth.
I had never heard of Southworth before Helzer introduced me to the sculpture. This was a loss as Southworth is a notable figure in Waldport and his story is an important one for Oregon history. Southworth was born as an enslaved person in Tennessee. His birth date is listed as July 4, 1830. His surname is that of his owner, James Southworth.
James Southworth brought Louis Southworth with him when he moved to Oregon. Slavery wasn’t legal in Oregon but people like James Southworth found ways around that restriction by using property laws. After leaving Tennessee, Southworth was able to earn money by playing his fiddle at dances and working in mines and saved the $1,000 that he needed to buy his freedom. This sum is roughly equivalent to $27,000 today.
After Louis Southworth delivered his savings to owner James, the latter tried to hold onto his slave by circulating a petition in Lane County against allowing slaves freedom, citing property laws. The petition reached the level of the state legislature but was not passed, making Louis Southworth a free man.
In the 1870’s Southworth and his family homesteaded near Waldport. Remarkably, a state that found ways to allow for slavery did not have racial restrictions for homesteading. Now a landowner, Southworth was also a ferryman, carrying goods and materials over the river. Later, Southworth donated land for the first schoolhouse in Waldport and served on the school board.
A key figure in the push to name Waldport’s new park for Southworth was Jesse Dolin, the Central Coast Destination Coordinator for the Oregon Coast Visitors Association, who grew up in Waldport. Dolin has a personal connection to Southworth.
Growing up, Dolin lived across from “Darkey Creek Road.” He was curious about the origin of the name, learning that the road was named after a Black man who lived in the area in the 1880s. Research at the local history museum (now incorporated with the Historic Alsea Bay Bridge Interpretive Center) and conversations with older town residents led him to Southworth’s story.
The initial idea was to simply display a plaque honoring Southworth, in the manner of an historical marker. But spending time at the future park site, Dolin had a realization: a plaque was not enough. Southworth needed a bronze statue. He found Helzer the way people find most everything these days—online. An image of Helzer’s statue The Storyteller: Ken Kesey Memorial (2003) caught his eye.
“I wrote a two-page email,” says Dolin about his initial contact with the sculptor.
Helzer told him that, after 45 years as a public artist, he can pick and choose the jobs he takes. Southworth’s story caught his attention and he agreed to take on the project.
Helzer’s sculptures are visible in public spaces throughout Oregon. In Eugene The Storyteller at Ken Kesey Square, so named after the sculpture, marks a gathering spot downtown. The Lane Transit District Station was similarly renamed Rosa Parks Plaza, where Helzer’s statue of Rosa Parks (2009) resides. In Portland, Balancing Turtles (1989) perpetually keep from falling at the Oregon Zoo, and reflect a class of whimsical statues made for parks and the enjoyment of children.
Helzer has an ancestral connection to the state, too. His relatives arrived in Eugene in 1847 in the second wagon train to do so, and then moved on to the Corvallis area where they staked a land claim in current-day Philomath. He wonders if his family, who owned a farm, might have known Southworth. Southworth had skills which would have caused people to seek him out. He was known to spend summers around Corvallis working on harvests, and besides being a ferryman and a fiddler, he was a blacksmith.
“If you needed your wheel fixed,” says Helzer, “you could have gone to Southworth.”
Helzer isn’t a blacksmith but he’s a welder. And though he’s not a fiddler, he plays banjo and guitar and his daughter Alison is a multi-talented musician (for whom he’s made a guitar).
Has he ever wondered about the kind of music Southworth played?
Yes, he has. He’s looking forward to the prospect of music at the opening of the park. In particular he’s heard there may be music similar to the type that Southworth played. Helzer surmises that Southworth probably played music in Oregon he brought with him from Tennessee.
I ask Dolin to confirm: Will there be fiddlers at the grand opening who are knowledgeable about music that would have been played by a Black man from Tennessee around the mid of the 19th century?
“We’re working on it,” Dolin answers.