Serving Gogebic, Iron and Ontonagon Counties

Hiawatha restoration begins


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Ironwood - After years of fundraising the work to repair and paint the 50-foot fiberglass replica of the legendary Hiawatha is underway at the park along Burma Road.

The St. Paul, Minnesota company that created the statue in 1964 is no longer around and the work is being conducted by FAST Corporation of Sparta, Wisconsin, the only Midwest company that still builds and repairs fiberglass structures, said Peter Sturgul, who started the repair project over three years ago with John Rudberg and Michael Meyer, director of the Ironwood Chamber of Commerce, which owns the statue. When completed later this week the statue should be good for another 50 years with periodic cleaning and maintenance, he said.

"We've done a lot of work over the year and it will be nice to get this behind us," Sturgul said. "Hopefully some people will continue donating to an ongoing maintenance fund that we are setting up so the statue doesn't fall into disrepair."

Don Harmon, the crew chief from FAST Corporation, and two workers will start power washing and removing chipped paint on the structure from the top down starting this morning. Over the next two days they will sand the exterior, remove loose paint and repair stress cracks, he said.

"Projects like this one can get a little involved because of all the work we have to do on it," Harmon said. "Once we're up there we'll be able to see a lot more and if there are stress cracks we can re-fiberglass and Bondo them up."

When the surface issues with paint, dirt and damage from pigeons are addressed the statue will be painted using an automotive type paint that will last for several years, Harmon said. As for the fiberglass it's pretty strong and that's why the statue has lasted so long, he said.

The company started as a fiberglass sculpture firm with various names in the 1960s and 1970s and specialized in making larger than life animals as roadside attractions or business advertising. The company created the 145-foot musky at the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward in 1978.

Harmon's two crew members, Eric McGinnis and Max Muraski, just returned from repairing "The World's Largest Catfish," a 40 foot fiberglass attraction in Wahpeton, North Dakota.

"All we do is fiberglass," Harmon said. "We do mainly waterside repairs and monuments."

Sturgul said load-bearing fiberglass at the base is thicker and its thins toward the top, which is where most of the repairs are needed. The paint will return the statue's true colors that can be seen with the scale model statue in a glass case at the chamber, he said.

The idea to repair the Hiawatha statue came over coffee in the summer of 2015, he said. Sturgul, Rudberg and Meyer felt it was the chamber's responsibility and that the statue still had a purpose, he said. Direct donations from organizations and individuals and a page went on for three years and the $26,000 goal was met after a $3,000 donation from the couple who won the 50-50 raffle in Bessemer, he said.

A Fast Corporation representative came to Ironwood around two years ago and Ironwood Public safety provided a fire engine with a ladder to inspect the statue and determine if repairs were cost-effective, he said.

"They found minor damage on the top and proposed to do some fiberglass repair work and repaint," he said.

The idea to build the statue came from the late Charlie Gotta Sr., a chamber member who thought the statue was a positive way of honoring Native Americans, and as an economic driver for tourism at a time when the mining industry was slowing, Sturgul said.

The statue cost around $10,000 in 1964, he said. There was a ceremony with a band as a trailer carrying the statue came through town and some equipment to install the statue was donated, he said.

Two 22-foot steel I-beams in a concrete base support the statue against winds, he said.

There was an annual Hiawatha Days with a raffle to pay off the $10,000 loan, he said.

"What they didn't do was set up a maintenance fund, which is what we want to do now," he said.

Over the years the statue became symbolic for the area and continues to attract travelers who seek out road art, he said. The statue has attracted visitors off the highway and to downtown, he said.

"I've been up there quite a bit and it's amazing how many people go up there to have lunch in the park," he said. "If you sit there for some time you will see people come and go all day."

With the project done the next step is to ask the city to help out with better signage to direct people to the Hiawatha statue from U.S. 2, he said.

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