WAIALUA, Hawaii -Between the palm trees and a patch of bare land on Oahu, on the north shore of Hawaii’s most populous island, there stands a huge wooden carving of the head of an Indian. He is weathered and stoic, having survived the plentiful rains and ample sunshine that beat steadily down upon his countenance. He is also the last of his kind.
The carving is the final giant head sculpted by Peter Wolf Toth, a Hungarian immigrant who became interested in the plight of the Indian while studying American history prior to becoming a citizen of the United States. He considered their early treatment by settlers and the federal government inhumane, so in 1972, he set out to make a statement of protest. He called it “the Trail of the Whispering Giants,” and his goal was to carve and leave one of his massive sculptures in every state.
His first was in LaJolla, Calif., a face he carved into sandstone along the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Time, water and the other elements destroyed the image, so after that effort he switched to logs as his medium. He returned to Akron and the journey began with a wooden carving that was eventually destroyed by vandals. He later replaced it.
Then his path took him across the U.S., to places like Mandan, N.D., Winslow, Ariz., Sharon, Pa., Cloquett, Ga., Valdez, Alaska, Murray, Utah, and Dunkirk, N.Y. When he arrived in a new city, he asked only that he be given a log, a place to install his work when it was finished, a concrete base and a bronze commemorative plaque. He was never paid for any of the sculptures, and lived mainly on donations. He traveled in the Ghost Ship, an old Volkswagen bus, as he toured the country looking for cities and towns that would accept his art. Some of the heads rise more than 40 feet above the surrounding landscape; others are as small as six or seven feet tall.
Toth worked about four months on each project, then moved on to the next state. Eventually, he carved 60 heads, including several in Canadian provinces. His last in the United States was the one standing on Oahu, finished in 1987. Most of his works are still performing their intended task of acting as sentinels at the gates of time to remind today’s generations of what has gone before. But others weren’t so fortunate.
Termites with no regard for art ruined his works in Fort Wayne, Ind., and Ocean Springs, Miss. The deterioration that comes with old age destroyed those once carved in Texarkana, Tex., and Vancouver, Wash. The sculpture in St. Louis, Mo., had to be removed after it was struck by lightning. The heads that once stood in Groton, Conn., and Aberdeen, S.D., are in storage while local citizens try to find funds to repair them. Others – like those originally placed in Deland, Fla., Atlantic City, N.J., Wilmington, N.C., and Wheeling, W.Va. — have simply vanished.
But the others remain as tribute to Toth’s 16-year quest to honor the Native Americans. Although his journey was complete, Toth didn’t retire. After finishing his project in this country, he returned to his native Hungary where he continues his pursuit of art. Among his later works is a wooden head honoring St. Stephan, the country’s patron. It stands in Delegyhaza, a small town about 20 miles outside of Budapest. It was his 73rd giant head sculpture.