Motorists cruising along a well-traveled road in the Catskills would be hard-pressed to miss seeing this 30-foot-tall carved wooden totem. The colorful pole — adorned with an eagle, a fish, and two grinning faces — stands guard at the rustic front door of what used to be a popular Indian trading post.
The totem was erected in 1933 by photographer Emile Brunel (1874-1944) on the site of his summer home and studio. A creative man, Brunel tried his hand at various forms of art. Best-known for his portraits of celebrities (including legendary Broadway composer George M. Cohan), he also founded the Brunel School of Photography, where he taught aspiring artists. The photographer dabbled in early cinematography, releasing a silent film entitled The Hand of God in 1916. And he devised a one-hour film development process — an invention that unfortunately never took off during his lifetime. Brunel also demonstrated a passion (and talent) for sculpting. To this day, his upstate property remains crammed with his statues; his ashes are even preserved in the top of one of them.
The totem pole pictured here is one of Brunel’s most unique sculptures. According to his great-grandson, Drue Lynch, the artist hand-carved each section to represent a different aspect of his own life, and affectionately referred to the ornate pillar as “Brunel’s Totem.”
Perched behind the totem pole, the trading post was a popular attraction established in the early 1900s by Brunel’s daughter, Gladys. The shop sold moccasins and other authentic goods and artifacts that were handmade by local Native Americans. During the 1920s and ’30s, the trading post became a well-known area attraction, and according to Lynch, was one of a kind in its heyday. “Many places tried to duplicate it, but our trading post was the only one that actually had things made by Indians, not in China,” he says. Lynch adds that Gladys Brunel originally lived in the shop and managed its operation. It was later handed down to Brunel’s granddaughter (Lynch’s mother), who owned and ran the unique store before selling it in the mid-1990s. (It is now closed.)
Do you know where this towering totem pole and trading post are located? If you do, E-mail us at edit@ hvmag.com; the first reader to identify the correct location (route number and town) wins a prize. Good luck!