Local woodcarver created totem pole at Catawba field

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 14, 2011

By Mark Wineka
SALISBURY – The sun tried earnestly to save the remnants of a recent Sunday as I started walking laps at Catawba College’s Shuford Stadium.
Inside the track, the unlined grass of the football field spread out like green velvet, and I noticed a pickup parked at the far end, beyond the goal posts.
Nearby, a tall step ladder also was set up next to the Indians’ signature totem pole.
As I moved closer, Athletic Director Dennis Davidson hailed me as he walked from the truck and shook a can, and I realized he was giving the totem pole a fresh coat of paint.
He wouldn’t be able to paint it all, he explained — just what he could reach from the ladder. A bucket truck would be needed for the rest of the pole, which rises at least 20 feet high.
Even with the fading light, Davidson wasn’t in a rush. There would be plenty of time before Catawba’s home opener, which is this Saturday against Newberry College.
Davidson had a radio for music and all colors of paint needed for the job. We shared news about our families, and Dennis told me a little bit of the history behind the totem, carved long ago out of a utility pole by the late Everette L. Setzer.
Setzer and his son, David, then director of public relations for Catawba, donated the totem pole through the Chiefs Club before the opening football game with Liberty Baptist in 1979.
The pole was first installed in the curve of the track closest to the gymnasium and near the home stands. Some years back, Catawba players, coming from the dressing facilities under the gym, started a tradition of slapping, patting and rubbing the pole as they entered the stadium for the day’s contest.
When the new fieldhouse was built at the other end of Shuford in 2002, Catawba relocated the totem pole to that part of the field, so the players could still touch it for good luck on their way in.
This week, I caught up with Dave Setzer to ask how his dad went about the business of carving the totem pole. In his lifetime, Everette Setzer created scores of these things, which no doubt still exist in places throughout North Carolina.
One of his tallest — 32 feet — stands at Dan Nicholas Park. He made two for Tweetsie Railroad and two for the Boy Scouts’ Camp Barnhardt in Stanly County.
But that wasn’t all.
“People would see them and hear about them and say, ‘I’ve got to have one of those,’ ” David Setzer said. “I was always amazed at how in the world there would be a market for totem poles in this area, but there was.”
Everette Setzer’s carving skills went beyond totem poles. He had started with Indian neckerchief slides when David was young and in Scouts, then tried his hand at Indian masks.
Soon he was carving angels, hillbilly figures, baskets, birds and all kinds of animals, such as camels, weasels, elephants and donkeys — the latter two being especially popular in political seasons.
He attended craftsmen’s fairs and festivals in big cities. The Post wrote a couple of stories about his work, and WBTV’s “Carolina Camera” featured him on a 1971 show.
Everette Setzer simply was the sharpest knife in the shed, which actually was a shop at the back of his Granite Quarry home that wife Era liked to call the “Pouting House.”
Era told people Everette went to the Pouting House when he was upset with her. He would start carving, letting the chips fly. Only then would his good humor return, allowing him to go back to the house later for dinner.
A pot-bellied stove in the shed warmed the place, and it wasn’t usual for a tea kettle to be whistling on the stove’s top.
As David Setzer spoke with me from his Salisbury office this week, he was looking at birds on his desk carved by his father. He remembered that the totem poles came from either cedar or cypress.
Everette Setzer, who retired in 1964 after 43 years with the state highway department, knew a couple of guys at Duke Power who kept their eyes open for knot-free cypress poles.
When the Duke fellows called, saying they had some poles for him, Everette Setzer took his truck and trailer and fetched them. He also knew farmers who supplied him now and then with tall cedars that had died.
He preferred the cedar as a prettier wood and easier to carve than cypress.
The utility poles and tall cedars were too long for the Pouting House, so Everette Setzer worked on them outside. He built a line of carts allowing him to wheel the poles around the yard. On top of the carts, he attached rollers, so he could work the pole’s circumference.
David Setzer always marveled at his father’s intuitive knowledge of physics. Everette had a sixth-grade education, but “he didn’t do anything that he wouldn’t use a lever to make it easier,” David Setzer says. “He was amazing.”
Everette Setzer made his own mallets and chisels, often taking larger tools and cutting them down to sizes he needed. His son can still see him using an adz, maneuvering his large drawing knives, wearing out sandpaper and applying paint on the totems.
“He just loved it, he really did,” Setzer says.
Everette also liked to oversee the installation of his totem poles. He bought discarded water heaters from Brown Supply in Granite Quarry, cut the tanks in half, sank the halves into the ground, placed the base of the poles inside the tanks and filled them up with concrete.
They were stout.
For his smaller wood carvings, Everette Setzer preferred walnut and mahogany. Again, he had connections — this time with furniture plants in High Point which gave him pickup loads of their scrap pieces.
While he eventually gave up the heavy totem poles, Everette Setzer kept carving things he could hold in his hands until he died from a stroke in 1986. He was 87.
Davidson reported Monday that Ricky Joines, an assistant basketball coach for the women’s team, took over the painting of Catawba’s totem pole, but “we still haven’t gotten to the top yet.”
A few years ago, vandals struck at the college and cut completely through the totem pole with a chain saw. Maintenance guys took it back to their shop, inserted steel rods and got the pole back together again.
Vandals who try to cut the totem pole again will be in for a bone-rattling surprise.
In other words, they won’t be the sharpest tools in the Pouting House.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@ salisburypost.com.