Arborsmith Studios - Axel Erlandson Tree Circus

From the book Arborsculpture: Solutions for a Small Planet
Pioneers- Chapter 6

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.
Axel taught himself the art of surveying and used that skill to help with expenses. He found books on surveying and studied them, then acquired a surveying level and found employment with his neighbors and drew a blue print of the whole community of Hilmar.

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.
He was successful with many of his designs, and moved on to other more intricate shapes. His work with trees began in 1925 a few years before the birth of his daughter Wilma. On his farm Axel planted and shaped trees that he would first draw on paper. Some of his plans were detailed to within 1/3 in. (0.84 cm.) using drafting tools.
On December 8, 1929, Axel drew a grand design called the Poplar Window. The plan called for ten poplar trees planted 18 in. (45.7 cm.) apart five on each side of a 3 ft. (91 cm.) doorway. The design showed an intricate gothic pattern coming to a peak at the height of 12 ft. (3.6 m.) above the doorway where all ten trees merged into one. On the sketch he wrote, “I believe I can get a tree to grow like this illustration.” His wife, who was not at that time as confident in his skills, wrote on the same sketch, “I do not believe that Axel can get a tree to grow like this illustration.” Axel won the challenge and had a photo made to document the fact.
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. They were grown about one hundred miles from here and were moved in and planted where they now stand in the spring of 1946... Many people, including a couple of nurserymen, have told me they have never seen trees like them anywhere else.”
Ripley published drawings of different trees from The Tree Circus twelve times over the years. Once he even ran an article about Axel’s clipped Monterey cypress hedge that encircled his property and looked like a green ornate wall with balls and spires. Axel collected the newspaper clippings and displayed them proudly on a board for visitors to admire.
One business angle that Axel pursued was to sell cards and photos of his trees to his customers to help bring in much needed income. Axel devoted most of his time to designing, planting and shaping his trees. Unfortunately for the Erlandson family, The Tree Circus lost most of its tourist traffic when the newly constructed Highway 17 bypassed the road in front of The Tree Circus.
In 1956 Life magazine, the premiere magazine of the time, arrived to chronicle Axel’s trees. Their article ran in a January 1957 issue, and Axel capitalized on the fact by placing a sign on one tree that said, “As seen in Life Magazine.” The publicity helped bring in new visitors and several other magazines arrived from around the US and abroad to do their own stories about The Tree Circus.
Axel wrote back to Life to thank them and note that due to his experiments he was firmly convinced that a park could be grown that would cause people to say, “It beats anything at the Santa Cruz (Calif.) Tree Circus.” Since his age at the time was 72 he thought he himself had little chance to grow such a park. “But,” he wrote, “anyone who would take an absorbing interest in this kind of work and would learn easily could likely in a year or two be taught about all the knowledge gained here in 30 years of work.”
In February of 1957 Axel received a letter from William Thompson, a real-estate broker, inquiring as to the interest in selling his attraction for $25,000. Axel responded with a price of $30,000, with the offer being good for 15 days. Mr. Thompson wrote back to ask if perhaps Erlandson would consider selling just the trees, if they could be moved, for $15,000. At that time nothing came of the negotiations.
One letter that Axel received in 1959 was from Madam Walska in Santa Barbara, California. An eccentric former opera singer (who had a knack for marrying wealthy men, which she did six times), she was spending her fortune on creating an elaborate garden she named Lotusland. On this 36 acre (10.52 hectors) estate she had amassed a large collection of rare plants, cactus, palms and cycads. She always wanted the best, the biggest, and the most unusual plants available and was often willing to pay any price to get them.
She inquired as to his willingness to sell some of his trees. Axel replied that he wished he could, but due to his publicity in magazines and on television any missing trees would likely disappoint his customers.
While Axel keep detailed notes on income, expenses, the weather and comments made by visitors, no notebook or journal has ever surfaced with details on how he went about his tree shaping techniques. Although he appears to have regretted it later, Axel never taught anyone his acquired skills, his “trade secrets.” When children would ask Axel how he shaped his trees, he would reply simply, “Oh I talk to them.” Perhaps this was the deepest truth. Surely some form of communication was taking place between Axel and his living medium. Here was a man to whom the trees listened!
At the age of 78, feeling he could no longer care properly for his trees, Axel contacted the state park service, to see if they were interested in his trees, but the offer was politely turned down. Axel next contacted William G. Thompson, who was still willing to take over, and who helped his son Larry Thompson and his wife Peggy to purchase the property. Larry and Peggy, in addition to William and his wife Florence, immediately started designing an expansion plan that would bring in more visitors.

The Thompsons purchased the adjoining lots and both parcels on either side of the new freeway, 40 acres in all. New landscaping was created around the trees, and a stream with a waterfall was added. The Erlandson house was converted into a gift shop and park entry concession. But what was really needed, Larry decided, was something that could be seen by the traffic now zooming down the highway about a half-mile away from The Tree Circus, in addition to something for children to enjoy. A Long Beach, California, artist was commissioned to build life-size fiberglass dinosaurs.
New pathways were made through Axel’s forest using a special mix of porous concrete that would not deprive the trees of water. The trees were given a new name, The Mystery Forest, and the new dinosaur park was given the name Lost World. An advertising campaign was readied. According to Peggy, Larry would pick up Axel at his new home and bring him to the park, where he would sit in his living tree chair and admire his work. Axel died about a year after selling The Tree Circus at the age of 79.
Several short months before Lost World would display Axel’s trees to the public once again, Larry Thompson himself died from cancer, leaving his widow Peggy with their two young sons to run the remade attraction. The first three years Lost World was open it was a booming success. Tourists and celebrities came from all over, including Bob Hope, Steve Allen and Raquel Welch. Eventually the excitement and crowds died away, and Peggy Thompson had her hands full raising her family alone.
She was advised to sell the property, which she did reluctantly. Her first buyers defaulted after a few years, but Peggy was able to lease the operation. Each new operator soon failed and moved on. The property was sold. Representatives from Disneyland tried to buy the trees but the owner at the time put such a high price on the trees Disneyland backed out of the deal. The property changed hands again and by 1976, some of the trees were dying and the paint had peeled from the dinosaurs. The property was slated for development and the trees were to be bulldozed.
About this time a young architect, Mark Primack, who had done his masters thesis on botanic architecture (growing trees to create habitable spaces), became intrigued with the trees and acquired an arts grant to draw them as they were. His passion for them became a crusade to save them. At one time he even risked arrest by trespassing with a group of friends to weed, water and tend to the trees. Mark also undertook detailed biographical research into Axel’s early life, uncovering important letters and documents that revealed some of Axel’s intentions. Mark instigated and led a campaign to have the trees declared an historic monument in an unsuccessful effort to assure their preservation in Scott’s Valley. Domestic and foreign media descended on the former Tree Circus and its fame spread around the world.
In 1984 Michael Bonfante, owner of Tree Haven Nursery and Nob Hill Foods, a large California grocery store chain, purchased the trees and eventually moved 28 of them, at great expense, back over the coast range to Gilroy. There they have become the main attraction in a modern day theme park filled with thrill rides and concession stands along with a two-story tropical greenhouse stuffed with exotic plants and trees. Bonfante Gardens presents once more the famous trees to a new generation.
A study of Axel’s surviving trees shows that the designs grown from sycamore have proven to be the most long-lived and have exhibited the most even growth. Whether this balance and longevity is a function of Axel’s designs, his skills as a grower, his choice of species, or a combination, remains to be understood. The Four-Legged Giant, The Basket Tree, The Totem Tree, and The Entry Arch Tree are among the most impressive today and all are sycamore trees that have retained an excellent symmetry after some 60 to 80 years of growth.
For tree stock Axel would collect cuttings or start with seeds. He would plant the trees he needed and build a frame from scrap wood that was strong enough to hold trunks and branches in the position he wanted. If a tree would start leaning, he’d correct the problem with a wire stretched from a stronger tree to a piece of 3/8 in. (.95 cm.) metal rod bent into a hook to provide an anchor point on the leaning tree. The wire was pulled tight to straighten the hooked tree. These wires and metal bars, evident in many of the old photographs, were also used to protect the trees from wind damage. The bent-metal rods would often end up inside the tree as the tree grew around them. Axel lost the top of his Double Spectacle Tree to a windstorm and was never able to replace it.
Grafting was the essential technique Axel used to perform his magic. To protect his grafts and hold them in place, Axel wrapped them in cloth until they were healed, reminding one reporter of “hospitalized victims of broken bones.” Axel sometimes used pieces of metal rod to hold parts of his trees in the correct position after the wooden frame was removed. In some cases, the rods were sawed off when no longer needed, and in other cases they were simply left in place. Perhaps Axel felt they were needed, or perhaps by this time, he was just too advanced in years to want to get up on a ladder and saw them off.
When I first obtained the vintage photographs of Axel’s trees, I did not have sufficient personal experience to grasp what I was seeing. But after practicing arborsculpture myself for over ten years and then taking a fresh look at the old photos, I now can see and understand things that were not apparent before. One insight was how Axel pruned his trees. He practiced “hard pruning,” essentially cutting off every branch that was not in his intended design. I realized this was how to force a tree to grow as desired and not allow it to use its resources to grow branches that would eventually be pruned anyway. Sadly, the exact techniques Axel used to accomplish his work may never be known, remaining buried by the sediment of time to be reinvented by a new generation of arborsculptors.
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
Regarding the strange or odd shaped trees being grown by me, as far as I have been able to find out, no one else has produced shapes or formations of trees such as many of mine....
If a person had a couple acres of good land (I have 3/4 of an acre here) and forty or fifty years time, then with the experience I have now, (I learn more every year and have learned all this work by my own experimenting) I believe a person could grow a grove of trees of designs so much more intricate than I have here that they would make my present place look quite simple in comparison....
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

Thanks to Mark Primack for early research and WIlma Erlandson for access to historical documents

Pioneer Arborsculptor John Krubsack grew a chair in 1914

Contact Information

Arborsmith Studios
1607 Caves Camp Rd.
Williams Oregon 97544

Phone: 541-846-7188
Copyright ©2007 Richard Reames, Arborsmith Studios Williams OR
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