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Axel N. Erlandson (1884-1964)
“You would think that as the trees grow, the formation would change. But they don’t. This chair will remain about the same height. The legs, arms and back will get larger in circumference but the shape will remain about the same.”
No other figure today or in known history went so far in demonstrating the potential that trees have to offer to the art of arborsculpture. With only a fourth grade education and a strong will to teach himself, Axel Erlandson’s work “set the bar” for all aspiring arborsculptors.
His accomplishments, embodied in his trees, continue to inspire and awe some 40 years after his death. Over 55 unique, shaped and grafted trees eventually graced the grounds at his famed Tree Circus, the roadside attraction he opened in 1947 along a well-traveled tourist route to the ocean side town of Santa Cruz, California.
Axel was born in Sweden in 1884, the third boy in the family. When he was an infant his family immigrated to America, settling in cold, northwestern Minnesota where Axel grew up. When he was 17, the family moved to California for the warmer climate and better farming. The Erlandson family relocated to the Swedish community of Hilmar near Turlock, California, in 1902.
Axel eventually began his career as a farmer raising beans and alfalfa with his wife Leona. Income was scant and conditions were tough in the central valley of California. He once told his only daughter Wilma that his mother had wanted all her sons to be farmers, and, as Wilma puts it, “They were all farmers.” Axel taught himself all he needed to know about auto repair, carpentry and mathematics. He also loved to ride his motorcycle, keeping detailed records of the miles he covered.
One day, inspired by observing some trees growing together by means of a natural graft called “inosculation” in the hedgerow around his field, Axel started planting trees in patterns that he hoped would encourage them to graft together into special living designs. These were his first simple experiments, and as Axel found success it became his hobby to see just how far he could take this idea of tree manipulation. Erlandson’s lack of formal education may have been a blessing. He was free to experiment without preconceptions allowing the trees themselves to act as his teachers.
In 1945 as World War II was drawing to a close, Leona and Wilma took a short trip to the coastal town of Santa Cruz. They were surprised to see people lined up and paying money for a look at oddly shaped buildings at a popular attraction called The Mystery Spot. When they returned from their trip, Leona planted a seed in Axel’s mind when she mentioned off-handedly that his trees could make a lovely attraction that people would pay to see.
The seed took root, and the following year Axel purchased a 3/4 acre lot located on a well-traveled tourist road in the small town of Scott’s Valley, California. With great excitement he began preparing his trees to be moved to their new home. That winter the best trees were dug up and loaded on trucks then moved to the evolving attraction and replanted. The other trees that Axel brought over from his farm were simply cut down and propped up to be replaced with new trees as soon as time would allow.
Finally, Axel erected a large sign that said simply, “SEE THE WORLD’S STRANGEST TREES HERE.” He planted a Sequoia gigantea sapling next to it. That sapling today has a circumference of over 20 feet (6.10 m.). About five years later he would name his attraction “The Tree Circus.”
Admission was 30 cents, but the park was not a rousing financial success. In 1947, the first year of operation, 110 paying customers visited; only 89 came the following year.
In June of 1947 Axel sent a letter with photographs to Robert Ripley, the celebrated world traveler who was known for his newspaper column “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” and short newsreels documenting the world’s strangest things. Axel wrote: “Enclosed you will find two snapshots of trees which I have trained to grow into these unique shapes. This training took about ten years. These trees are located on the Los Gatos highway near Santa Cruz, California.
Axel lamented time’s limitations to his progress with living tree art in this letter written in 1953. He regretted starting so late in life and not having passed his techniques onto someone else. The letter contains an important statement that should encourage all would-be arborsculptors. Considering his tremendous success with his trees he humbly pointed out that he was unable to “carry it to near its ultimate possible attainment.” Clearly he thought that the potential went well beyond what he accomplished.
In His Own Words
A number of people have asked me if there is any one else who can take up this work when I lay it down; but I know of no one that could be trained to continue after me in this occupation.
So in a way it would appear that I have learned a kind of profession so late in life that I cannot carry it to near its ultimate possible attainment....
Santa Cruz, California, May 1953
To see the whole chapter, purchase the book Arborsculpture: Solutions for a Small Planet
Thanks to Mark Primack for early research and Wilma Erlandson for access to historical documents
Pioneer Arborsculptor John Krubsack grew a chair in 1914
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My Father Talked to Trees
by Wilma Erlandson
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