••• Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Horse of Babylon 

E is for The End of the Trail Tale

I grew up in a working poor, urban neighborhood, walking distance from downtown Gr*nd Rap*ds. Our house was at the bottom of a hill, at the end of a one-block, dead-end street. Next to our house was a wooded lot we called The Woods (100 x 300 ft, and far less wood than weed).


Most of the houses on my block were built around 1900, while a couple legendary structures were built before the turn of the century. The last three houses built on our street included our house, the house next door, and a four-family apartment building directly across the street from us. I haven’t been able to get a hold of my mom to verify, but I'm pretty sure our house was built in the 1920’s.

I’m sorry for the all the detail, but you’ll soon understand the relevancy.

Word on the street was that before the block was developed for residential, The Woods was a junk yard. As a child, I dug for buried treasure, and on rare occasions would come up with something cool, like a colored-glass apothecary bottle. Or a fork. For the most part, my Earth Booty was limited to pottery chips and rotted scraps of drapery.

When I was about 10 years old, I went rubbish rooting in new, uncharted territory; the drainage ditch across the street, on the apartment side* of The Woods.

That's where I found this:

If not for the fact that I was 10 years old and thought the guy on the horse was part duck,I probably would have left it in the ravine. When I brought it home to show my mom I half-expected her to yell at me for bringing trash into the house.

Au contraire.
She was thrilled.

Not only did the piece fit nicely with her antique décor (remember my mom’s chest?), she was mostly excited that this corroded, stanky duck/man/horse thing was a replica of a famous sculpture titled The End of the Trail

“It's A Remington,” she said, in a tone that suggested my jaw would be hitting the floor, shortly. Jaw remained intact, on account of my thinking a Remington was a razor blade.

“Of course, it’s not worth anything now, because of the rust, but it was probably worth a lot of money, at one time. It’s one of Remington’s most famous works.” ::It was not until years later that I learned the piece in question was actually A Fraser .::

When my mom asked if she could have it, I said “sure.” I didn’t get the big attraction anyway. While she commenced to chipping away the loose rust with a butter knife, I asked her the meaning of the duck’s head. After hearing that the duck snout was actually a clump of hair, I still couldn’t see it. I could, however, almost imagine it was a feather, on account of the guy being Indian, and all.

Over the years, my little duck man held a place of honor on the fireplace mantle. It was often a topic of conversation when visitors came to call. I loved hearing my mom tell the story of how it came into the house and how it was probably quite valuable at one time. On account of it being, you know, one of Remington’s most famous works.

One Man's Junk....
Enter the internet.

In preparation for this post, I did a little on-line research. You know, for storyline verification. Okay, for bragging rights.

A quick google lead me first to this site, where I made the heart stopping discovery that my little sculpture was not the real deal. Clearly.

Both the horse and the duckman have too short of legs. The duck bill is all wrong, as is the horse's tail. It’s not the same sculpture.

Further research lead me to Ebay, where I found several more variations on the theme, most of which were selling for over $100.00.

And then I came to this:

That’s my little ducker. At the time I stole this photo, the highest bid was $3.91. Ouch.

Truthfully, no illusions that my statue was worth anything. But neither did I expect it was not what I thought it was. And my momma said it was A Famous Statue. Maybe even worth something, at one time.

And now I learn that it’s nothing but a miserable, cheap knockoff.

I think the worst of the disappointment settled into the heart of the one time little girl who, while not dirt poor, grew up in a home where there was little material fluff. :: For example, for Christmas, I couldn’t have both Gumby and Pokey. Just Gumby for me. Pokey for my sister.::

For a child to pull something famous and Almost Worth Something from a musty pile of leaves, and turn it into a family heirloom, is powerful stuff. And you can’t go trifling with things like personal legend and myth.

I think that's why I got stuck in trying to finish this post. The story had a surprise ending for the author. A bit of irony that requires a bit of adjustment.

The End of the Tail
Since getting over my shocking discovery (really, I am) I have been wondering about something. Fraser created the original model for “The End of the Trail” in 1894, but it didn’t become well-known until 1915.

Let's go with the assumption that my Duckman is a knockoff. How did it get knocked off, mass produced and dumped in The Woods by my house, between the years 1915 and probably the mid 1920’s?

Maybe Fraser got the idea from someone else.
Maybe Fraser was the Knockeroffer.
Maybe my guy is famous after all.

You can see a picture of the real thing, here.

I’m sure I had more to say on this, but truthfully, I’m sick to death of thinking, talking and writing about it.

P.S. Just today I found this link. 300 bucks? Not too shabby. And it says they were made in the late 1800's or early 1900's. Hmmm. The Plop thickens. He still looks like a duck.

*We usually stayed clear of the apartment building across the street, on account of The Russian Tenants. This was the 60’s, people. Russians were bad. They kidnapped babies and fed them vodka. And they had bad teeth. And wore funny hats. And they were really good at gymnastics. ::Dude. Except for that gymnastics thing, I just described Uncle Skeeter!.:: Unfortunately, by the time we figured out The Russians were actually The Latvians Who Came to Our Country to Escape The Russians, they weren’t feeling real neighborly. In our defense, one of their adult children did bear a striking resemblance to Illya Kuryakin Poor woman. Just sayin'.


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