At Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, if you know where to look, you can find a most spectacular woodcarving that is over a century old. It is a huge lion in a cage all carved from one piece of wood that came from the massive trunk of a sycamore tree.
The woodcarving is 44 inches in diameter and 48 inches tall. It was carved in the latter part of 1912 and early part of 1913 by Springfield woodcarver Nathan Edward Galloway.
Nathan was born in Springfield on Feb. 18, 1879, to Nathaniel and Cordelia (Gideon) Galloway. Although Cordelia traveled to Springfield to have access to medical care during Nathan’s birth, the family was living at Hootontown on the James River in Stone County at that time.
Nathan grew up at Hootontown and became proficient at both carving and blacksmithing. His first carvings were buttons that he carved for his mother out of mussel shells from the river.
In 1898, at the age of 19, Nathan joined the U.S. Army and fought in the Spanish-American War. He saw action in the Philippines before returning to Hootontown.
In 1904, Nathan married a girl from Hootontown, Villa Sue Hooton, who was the daughter of Benjamin and Rebecca (Upton) Hooton. The village was named after Benjamin’s cousin, William Carver Hooton (1833-1917).
By 1910, Nathan and Villa were living in Rogers, Oklahoma, where he owned and operated a blacksmith shop. Apparently, Nathan decided to see if he could make his living as a woodcarver and returned to Springfield a couple of years later to see if he could obtain that goal.
In Springfield, he specialized in creating ornately carved pieces of furniture, such as hall trees and smoking stands. These became very popular and he rented space in a building at 221 S. Jefferson in Springfield for his workshop and storage area for his unsold carved pieces.
He eventually decided to broaden his horizons by creating a series of huge one-piece woodcarvings to display at the 1915 World’s Fair (the Panama-Pacific Exposition) in San Francisco. His belief was that he could sell the carvings for big money after displaying them at the World’s Fair and that the publicity from the exhibition of his carvings would create a national demand for his work.
To this end, Nathan began creating massive one-piece woodcarvings, one of which was the lion in the cage. Another was the figure of a woman in the coils of a huge snake. There was also a table with intricately carved motifs, a life-size figure of a fisherman and a life-size figure of a hunter.
His carvings were incredible and Nathan’s plan might well have worked, if fickle fate had not intervened.
The headline from the July 18, 1913, issue of a Springfield newspaper tells the sad tale: “Fierce Fire For A Time Threatens Whole City Block.”
The fire took place in the building owned by the Colonial Hotel, of which part was used as a gas station by the Walters-Pierce Oil Company. Nathan rented the remainder of the building for his wood shop and storage.
The newspaper reported that Nathan’s massive woodcarvings were reduced to ashes. His losses were estimated by him for the paper as $5,000 for the “Lion in the Cage,” $500 for the “Carved Table,” $1,000 for the “Woman in the Coils of a Snake,” $1,000 for “The Hunter” and $750 for “The Fisherman.”
Fortunately, a line near the bottom of the article gave some hope. It said, “An inspection of the charred pieces left in the ruins of the burned shop disclosed possibility of re-working some of the carvings.”
That sentence was referring, of course, to the lion in the cage and one other undisclosed piece. According to the article in the paper, he secured temporary shop quarters on South Street at the Lippman Printing Company building.
I could find no evidence that Nathan’s lion in the cage piece ever made it to the World’s Fair. He probably did not think he had enough pieces after the fire to warrant shipping them to San Francisco.
That meant that he had lost the major portion of his labors for the past two years, but also lost potential earnings, prestige and a possibly brighter future. It all went up in smoke.
Instead of attending the World’s Fair in 1915, Nathan ended up moving back to Oklahoma in 1914, the year after the fire. There he was employed by the Charles Page Orphans Home at Sands Spring, teaching the “manual arts” to the boys.
Nathan spent the next 22 years in that vocation. He retired in 1937 and he and Villa moved to a farm near Chelsea, Oklahoma. He began carving and making violins and ended up producing 300 of them during the remainder of his lifetime.
But Nathan also began a huge project that is still a tourist attraction today. He spent 11 years creating a huge cone-shaped totem pole out of steel-reinforced concrete with Indian motifs painted on it. It was 40 feet in diameter at its base and 90 feet tall and was proclaimed as the world’s largest totem pole.
After that, he created the “Arrowhead Totem,” the “Birdbath Totem” and a “Tree Totem.” He also made two concrete totem picnic tables, a concrete totem grilling station, the Fish-Arch gates to the park and two small bird gateposts.
He also constructed an 11-sided Navajo hogan that he called his “fiddle house” as a museum to display his creations.
Nathan died on Nov. 11, 1962, at the age of 89.
The “Totem Pole Park” is on the National Register of Historic Places and is now maintained by the Rogers County Historical Society.
If you go to Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, make sure you ask the whereabouts of Nathan Galloway’s “Lion in a Cage” woodcarving, so you can see for yourself how amazingly talented he was.