Axel Erlandson (December 15, 1884 - April 28, 1964) was an American farmer who opened a horticultural attraction in 1947 featuring his uniquely shaped trees. The attraction was eventually named "The Tree Circus."
Erlandson was born in Sweden in the province of Halland, to Alfred Erlandson (1850-1915) and Kristina Larsson (1844-1922). He had two brothers, Ludwig (1879-1957), Anthon (1881-1970) and one sister, Emma Swanson (1885-1969). His parents emigrated to the US in early 1886 and settled in New Folden Township, Marshall County, Minnesota, where his father farmed and did construction of barns, houses and churches there. His family also ran a limestone kiln to produce quicklime used in mortar, plaster, and whitewash. The men and boys kept the fires going 24-hours a day during the processing time. The limestone rocks were collected from the surrounding fields. As a young boy, Axel produced a working model of a threshing machine, but was disappointed when he was told by his parents that he couldn't take it along to California. In 1902 the family rented a box car, loaded their possessions, and moved to Central Valley of California along with a couple of other Swedish families to join a new Swedish Mission Covenant Church colony of Hilmar, south of Turlock, which promised irrigated land for farming operations. He married his wife Leona in 1914. He had one daughter, Wilma. He farmed outside of Hilmar near his parents and raised beans and other crops. There, inspired by observing a natural inosculation in his hedgerow, he began to shape trees. He began his work with trees in 1925. Very few people knew of his early work of grafting trees other than his sister and a few close family friends. He would create designs on paper first and then plant in the specified patterns, pruning, grafting and bending them. This began as a hobby for the amusement of himself and his family.
In 1945, Erlandson's daughter and wife took a trip to the ocean near Santa Cruz, California. There they saw people lined up to pay to see such oddities as tilted buildings at the Mystery Spot. They returned home and mentioned (off hand) that Axel's trees could draw people who would pay to see them if they were on a well-traveled tourist route. Axel jumped on the idea and bought a small parcel of land in Scotts Valley, California on the main road between the Santa Clara Valley and the ocean; and started the process of transplanting the best of his trees to their new home. The Tree Circus opened in the spring of 1947.
On June 4, 1947, Erlandson wrote to Robert Ripley sending him 2 photos of his trees and inviting him to visit. Erlandson’s trees appeared in the column of Robert Ripley's Believe It or Not! twelve times.
To create the "Basket Tree", Erlandson planted six sycamore trees in a circle, topped them all at one foot, then approach-grafted them together one to another to form the diamond patterns. For the first 2.5 meters (8') he left an opening at the top. This specimen today is featured as the centerpiece of Gilroy Gardens.
Erlandson taught himself over a period of decades how to train the growth of trees into shapes of his own design. When children asked how he got his trees to grow like this, he would reply, "I talk to them." Erlandson considered his methods "trade secrets." Income from admission was scant, in 1955 a relatively good year the Tree Circus brought in $321.20. The opening of Highway 17 took the tourist traffic away. Life Magazine ran a pictorial in the January 14, 1957 issue, improving attendance.
In 1963, Erlandson sold the property for $12,000 and died the following year in Capitola, California. The new owners, Larry and Peggy Thompson named the place "The Lost World." They had large fiberglass dinosaurs made to attract the attention of the passing traffic, installed a stream, and prepared to expand the attraction to several times its original size.
Unfortunately, Larry Thompson died before The Lost World could open. Peggy Thompson, left to raise three small children, managed to open the park successfully for a few years. She then tried to sell and the new owners defaulted. Subsequent lease owners went in and out of business.
In 1977 the property was purchased for commercial development by Robert Hogan and the trees were scheduled to be bulldozed. Mark Primack, a young architect, began documenting the trees and their story and received an art grant to draw and record them as they were. Joseph Cahill, a landscape designer, paid Hogan $12,000 for the trees and was given two and a half years to move them. Cahill cleaned up the site, and "Suddenly the good citizens of Santa Cruz and Scotts Valley were upset." A committee called the Friends of Scotts Valley Tree Circus was formed by Joe Cucchiara to keep the old trees put. At times Primack and his friends risked arrest for trespassing in order to water and feed the trees. Primack was quoted as saying "I know of no other single person who has taken ornamental grafting to such an extreme, it is not just an oddity. It demonstrates an intriguing option for improving our environment by creating an absolutely unique space of living sculpture." Efforts to have the trees declared historical or a cultural resource failed and Cahill’s window for moving the trees closed. Hogan's plan for development did not materialize.
In 1985, Michael Bonfante, owner of Nob Hill Foods, a grocery store chain, and Tree Haven, a tree nursery in Gilroy, California, bought the trees from Hogan and transplanted 24 of them to his new amusement park, Bonfante Gardens, now called Gilroy Gardens, in Gilroy, California.
Preserved dead trees from Erlandson's collection reside today in the Museum of Art History in Santa Cruz, California. One tree was loaned to the World Expo 2005, Aichi, Japan for display in the Growing Village pavilion. Erlandson's "Telephone Booth Tree" is on permanent display at the Baltimore, Maryland American Visionary Art Museum.
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
The Tree Circus
Posted by M. Christian