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Can Iron Mike come back?

Abused for nearly 105 years by vandals and the elements, the much-loved “Iron Mike” statue that had gazed over the Ashland Plaza since 1910, faces an uncertain and expensive future as he tries to remount his 12-foot pedestal — and meet historic standards as he does so.

“He’s had a rough life,” said city Public Works Superintendent Mike Morrison this week as he surveyed the 5-foot, 4-inch, pot metal statue of a pioneer out hunting with a flintlock rifle. It stands now in the city’s Public Works warehouse while officials figure out how — and whether — they can restore or recast it.

Mike’s arm and rifle were ripped off last October when vandals climbed the statue. It wasn’t the first time. The same thing happened in 2001 — and he somehow fell off his pedestal in the 1960s and was messed up when a car crashed into him in the 1930s, according to Ashland historian George Kramer.

In a report to the City Council at its study session Monday, City Administrator Dave Kanner said the options for Iron Mike are “not good (and) very costly.” 

The main problem, Kanner reports, is that the statue is made of zinc alloy “that virtually no one works with any longer” and the break was in the same spot that was repaired 15 years ago by a blacksmith for $6,000.

“Re-repairing the same spot will be difficult if not impossible,” Kanner said.

The council made no decision, as the report was just to inform members what is going on.

Public Works staff has been consulting with Kramer and the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office, which must be involved in any actions affecting items on the National Register of Historic Places. The Ashland Downtown Historic District is so listed.

SHPO has told Morrison their first choice is preservation of the original statue somehow. Morrison said the cheap, fragile zinc possibly could be welded back together again but, because of the break at the right hand and aging cracks in its feet, it could be a big safety hazard, especially if vandals knock the 500-pound Mike to the ground again. 

Plan B is recast the statue by making a mold and executing it in bronze, aluminum, epoxy or something they don’t yet know about, said Morrison. If it’s bronze, it would be much heavier and the 12-foot pedestal would have to be reinforced, said Kramer, who is researching the cost and feasibility of all options.

Kramer says the J. L. Mott Iron Works in New York cast many of copies of “The Pioneer,” as it was called, including one in Salem that blew over in a windstorm and shattered, after five years. Another was in Iowa and, after damage, was recast in more sturdy materials, with the original going in a museum. 

Ashland’s statue, he adds, is not only historic but unique, as the only one on display outside, which greatly increases its value to history. 

Kramer does not rule out repairing Iron Mike — or should he be called Zinc Zeke? — but if so, the city must realize that if it falls or is rammed again, it will shatter and can’t be put back together. He says the city should make a mold of it or even a “security copy.”

“My personal feeling is that if we repair it and put it back up there without a security copy, it will be really dangerous. We’re only one bad accident away from losing him forever ... He was a centerpiece of downtown and people had a lot of affection for him. He’s the only one left. It’s an important part of Ashland history.”

Kramer says he has no idea yet how much the options would cost or who could do it. Morrison said the project looks like it will take a year or more.

“Putting him back together is not too difficult,” says Morrison. “It depends on what you’re willing to spend. What’s hard is making him able to stand the elements and life on the Plaza.”

Morrison and the Public Works crew have taken an affection for Mike and share a determination to return him to the Plaza. Meanwhile, he is so lifelike in the warehouse that he “kinda scares the heck out of some guys when they come around the corner at night.”

Reach Ashland freelance writer John Darling at jdarling@jeffnet.org.