The Black Bird statue will soon have a twin
In 1965 — the heyday of kitschy roadside attractions — Lee Hobbs had an idea to advertise his Army surplus store in Medford.
Though he had no artistic background, Hobbs thought his business, which he named the Black Bird store, needed a 29-foot black bird statue out front.
Hobbs designed and built the statue himself using re-bar, hog wire and fiberglass. Perhaps he didn’t know art, or bird anatomy, or proportions, but he knew how to build, having worked as a fabricator for Boeing in Seattle and as a mechanic.
His creation, which still stands today, is a bird only in the broadest sense. It might more accurately be described a bodybuilder in a bird suit.
Hobbs’ black bird has bulging biceps, toes that curl skyward, claws (perhaps fingers?) that bend at opposing angles. The arms (yes, the bird has arms) are roughly twice the length of its legs. Beak agape, it stares down drivers entering the store parking lot from atop two concrete pillars, painted with the store’s initials, B.B.
“A lot of people, myself included, see the bird and see just shock, excitement and a little bit of fear,” said Jonathan Quitt, the current vice president of Black Bird Shopping Center. “We occasionally get strange love letters, if you will, describing the bird.”
The archives of the Black Bird store contain fan art dedicated to the statue, including a fiction story about the bird coming to life and a framed painting of the bird towering over a Walmart, seemingly about to assert its retail dominance.
Quitt acknowledges the statue itself is “a little grotesque” and possibly “nightmare fuel,” but it’s also a Medford icon — which is why, when Black Bird opens a second store next year in Phoenix, there will be another statue built outside of it.
“Maybe it’s a little bit of pride about having something unique in the area you live,” he said. “Especially these days, when things are just cookie-cutter big-box stores, just the absurdity and uniqueness of something like that makes people chuckle and have a little bit of pride.”
The Medford black bird was not actually the first bird statue built by Hobbs. Both Black Bird’s statue and the store share a history with Yard Birds, a small chain of shopping centers in Washington state.
Yard Birds was founded in 1947 by childhood friends Bill Jones and Rich Gillingham in Centralia, Washington, initially as a post- World War II Army surplus store, selling anything from tents to toilets. The two friends called their store Yard Birds, using a term for a trainee soldier.
In the era before big-box stores, Yard Birds was a sensation that grew to carry clothes, toys, furniture, live pets and appliances. The place was known for wild advertising promotions and its collection of yard bird statues — the very first of which was built by Hobbs.
Rob and Karma Hugo produced a full-length documentary on the store called “Skinny and Fatty: The Story of Yard Birds.” According to their research, Hobbs was friends with founder Bill Jones from their time working together at Boeing. Hobbs decided to make a roughly 10-foot-tall “yard bird” statue for his friend as a joke.
“They put it in front of the store for laughs, but it was so popular that Bill got the idea to make a bunch of them and set them out along the roads as advertising, which worked very well,” Rob Hugo said.
Hobbs, who ran a service station on the outskirts of Medford, was encouraged by his friend’s success and opened his own surplus store in Oregon.
“Bill told Lee, I’ll send a couple of trailers worth of merchandise down to you, put it in your shop and see how it does,” Quitt said.
For his own store, Hobbs built a towering version of the bird statue in the parking lot.
Later, Yard Birds surpassed the Black Bird in bird statue height, with the construction of a massive, 60-foot yard bird in 1971.
Sadly, neither the Yard Birds statue, nor the stores, exist today. A car driving between the statue’s legs backfired, burning the sculpture down in 1976. The last Yard Birds store closed in the 1990s. The former Chehalis location is now a flea market, where travelers can still see some of the smaller yard bird statues and a bird-shaped former helicopter hangar, though all are worse for the wear.
But in Medford, Black Bird is still going strong. Over the years, it’s grown from a 10,000-square-foot surplus store to a 50,000-square-foot shopping bonanza. Black Bird carries a bit of everything: sportswear, hunting and camping gear, home brewing supplies, Ace brand hardware, clothing and kitchen gadgets.
There are multiple aisles of nothing but fishing tackle.
“It’s just kind of a magical place,” Quitt said. “People come here and are walking around with sparkles in their eyes and mouths agape. People say they could come here and get lost in the store.”
Hobbs died of lung cancer in 1973 at age 51, and his sons eventually sold their shares in the business to long-time employee Bill Quitt, who remains president of the company today. Jonathan Quitt, Bill’s son, left his career as a software engineer about two years ago to get involved in the family business alongside his father, brother and nephews.
The younger Quitt has spearheaded efforts to preserve the iconic bird statue. In 2021, Black Bird hired Augie’s Fiberglass to repair and repaint the bird, which had endured decades of weathering and the occasional car rear-ending. Quitt also wants to bring back some of the old traditions for the statue, recently purchasing a hydraulic lift so employees can start dressing it for various holidays. The bird also has a speaker system in its beak that stopped working years ago. Quitt hopes to fix it soon.
“I have a lot of pride in this family business,” Quitt said. “We’re kind of a local icon. A lot of people in the valley have been shopping at this store for generations. They were shopping here as children, and now they’re shopping here with their children, and there’s something very special about that.”
There will soon be a second Black Bird towering over the Rogue Valley. Last month, Quitt announced plans to open a second store in Phoenix, with groundbreaking to begin this summer and an expected opening in 2023. It will be the first expansion for the business since it opened in 1965.
Quitt is hoping to commission the same company that restored the original black bird to construct a replica statue for the Phoenix store, likely a bit smaller at about 20 feet. The strange-looking bird, he said, has become an important symbol for the store’s spirit.
“We are a very eclectic place, and we just want to maintain that feeling as that weird place to go and get lost in,” Quitt said. “We’re here to stay, and we want to keep it weird and fun.”
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