It’s only a matter of time until someone makes a movie about Louis Southworth’s remarkable life.
An Oregon pioneer, a professional fiddle player, a blacksmith, a soldier, a horse trainer, a landowner who donated property for a school: That’s Louis Southworth. And, oh yes, born a slave in Tennessee, a man who purchased his freedom and lived his adult life in Oregon during a period when the state’s exclusion laws prohibited Black people from residing here.
“His story is intriguing; it reads like a novel,” says Peter Helzer, a pre-eminent Oregon sculptor commissioned to create a bronze of Southworth that will grace a new park in Waldport that will be named for him.
A year and a half ago, the Waldport City Council agreed to honor Southworth, thanks to a suggestion by Jesse Dolin, destination developer for the Oregon Coast Visitors Association. Dolin grew up in the area and knew the history. Southworth, who homesteaded near Alsea Bay, was well known in the community, not least because he donated land for the construction of the first school in the area and later served as the school board president. Southworth Creek (originally named Darkey Creek before being renamed by the Oregon Geographic Names Board in 2000) empties into Alsea River a few miles upstream of Waldport.
Dolin says that his recommendation to honor Southworth has been embraced by everyone involved, the city council, looking to name the park, the visitors’ association, who ponied up the money for the statue, and Helzer, who agreed to create it at cost.
The new park is at the site of the former middle/high school, empty since the school was moved in 2013 out of the tsunami zone. Helzer’s sculpture will greet people at the park entrance. While work continues on the park, Helzer’s sculpture will be unveiled at the Alsea Bay Bridge Visitor Center & Museum in Waldport on Saturday, Nov. 19.
Helzer’s work dots the Oregon landscape with pieces in nearly every major community. In Eugene his work is nestled into local consciousness: author Ken Kesey, activist Rosa Parks, educator Brother Dan Grogan, the iconic Sighting Pedestal on Mount Pisgah. Helzer’s more whimsical side emerges in other pieces: the otters in a Corvallis park, the turtles at the Oregon Zoo, the alligators on parade in Salem. He brings a storyteller’s insight to bear in his sculptures, which offer both a narrative and an invitation to touch, to sit next to, to laugh out loud with.
Helzer, who has his own foundry on a bucolic piece of property in Dexter, brings decades of experience to both representational and abstract art. At this point in his career he can afford to be choosy. But he was drawn to Southworth for personal reasons.
A lifelong Oregonian, Helzer comes from pioneer stock, with family who came to Eugene in 1847 by wagon train then settled a year later south of what is now Philomath. His ancestors didn’t live that far from Alsea Bay, where Southworth once lived.
Because he was a key part of the communities where he lived and worked, Southworth was often mentioned in the newspapers of his day. The notices might be brief — Louis Southworth visiting Corvallis, or being called for jury duty, or one of his horses taking a prize at the county fair. Or they might be lengthier: a call for community financial support when his failing health put him at risk of losing his home. At a time when few Black people resided in Oregon, people noticed Southworth, not only because of his race but because he brought so much else to the community.
“They would have known Louis Southworth, or known of him,” Helzer says of his own ancestors.
Helzer, it turns out, is also a musician, his preferred instrument the five-string banjo. He suspects that his musical tastes likely coincide with Southworth’s. “I’ve played a lot of tunes that he probably played,” Helzer says.
Southworth’s story is detailed in an excellent and deeply researched essay by genealogist and librarian Peggy Baldwin and published by the Oregon Historical Society on its Oregon Encyclopedia website.
He was born in Tennessee on July 4, 1829, according to census records, or 1830 according to his gravestone. Some sources spell his name Louis; others, Lewis.
He arrived in Oregon in 1853 at the age of 24, brought here with his mother by their enslaver, James Southworth. When and how he took up the fiddle isn’t clear, but by 1854, he was traveling in the southern Oregon and California gold fields, where he was able to earn money playing music.
In his travels he got caught up in the Rogue Valley Indian War, where white soldiers he encountered demanded he give up his rifle. Baldwin quotes Southworth on his decision not to surrender his weapon: “Feeling as if I could not part with my gun, which was the only means of defense I had, I joined the company.” Col. John Kelsay’s Second Regiment fought in two skirmishes in March and April of 1856. Southworth was wounded in one of those battles, Baldwin notes.
By 1859, his fiddle-playing — at dance schools, at community events — had earned him $1,000, enough to buy his freedom. In today’s dollars, that would be about $35,000. It was an extraordinary sum to amass and surrender so that he could pursue the “unalienable rights” outlined in the nation’s Declaration of Independence.
While Oregon had exclusion laws at the time, it wasn’t a slave state, and Helzer notes that there wasn’t the infrastructure to enforce laws making it illegal for African Americans to live here. Southworth eventually settled in Buena Vista, at the time a bustling community on the Willamette River a little northeast of Corvallis. There he worked as a blacksmith and ran a livery stable, according to Baldwin. And that’s also where he met and married Mary Cooper, whose adopted son Alvin McCleary, he helped raise. The principal at McCleary’s school helped Southworth learn to read and write.
In 1880, the family moved west, staking claim to land on a creek feeding into the Alsea River a few miles east of Waldport. Besides clearing and working his land, Southworth also ferried passengers and cargo up and down the river and across the bay.
A portrait of Southworth graces the cover of A Peculiar Paradise, A History of Blacks in Oregon, 1788–1940 by Elizabeth McLagan. She notes Southworth’s commitment to voting and describes a storm on Election Day one year that kept everyone on the far side of Alsea Bay from crossing to vote in Waldport. Everyone, that is, except Southworth, who rigged oil cans to his boat to help keep it afloat. He was the only one from his side of the bay who cast a vote that day.
In 1883 Southworth donated half an acre of land on Alsea Bay for the construction of the area’s first school. Later, he served on the school board.
His wife died in 1901, and in 1910 he sold his land, moved to Corvallis and bought a house. He married again in 1913, but his health had begun to fail. By 1915, he was struggling financially, and the community rallied, collecting enough money to pay off his mortgage and petitioning the government for a soldier’s pension for him. He died in 1917 before that effort had made its way through the bureaucracy.
Between the lines of Southworth’s life story, Helzer sees a man who was able to build trust and community wherever he went.
Helzer faced unique challenges in designing and building the Southworth piece. Unlike his other works, where familiarity, or a model, or plenty of still and video images existed, there were just three photographs of Southworth. Besides turning a flat rendering into an accurate three-dimensional one, Helzer wanted to capture the essence of Southworth’s dignity.
“I thought, ‘If it doesn’t come out that way, I’ll redo it,’” he says. Bronze art includes many intricate steps. First Helzer sculpts a clay version, then builds molds around the clay. These molds are used to transfer the form into wax. Another mold is built around the wax, which is melted away. Into that empty space, liquid bronze — a copper and tin alloy — is poured. Helzer is one of the few sculptors with his own foundry. He doesn’t contract out any part of the process.
A do-over if he didn’t like the results would be no small thing.
And then there was the music.
Because playing the fiddle was such a key part of Southworth’s life, Helzer wanted to portray him playing the fiddle. And that added another layer of complexity, the unique positioning of fingers, hand, wrist and arm.
“The hard part is to get the gesture right,” he says.
About that music: Baldwin’s essay includes a story of the local Baptist congregation asking Southworth to give up his fiddle if he wanted to keep coming to church. In his own wry way, Southworth declined: “I told them to keep me in the church with my fiddle if they could, but to turn me out if they must; for I could not think of parting with the fiddle. I reckon my name isn’t written in their books here any more; but I somehow hope it’s written in the big book up yonder, where they aren’t so particular about fiddles.”
The epitaph on his gravestone in Corvallis: “A bit of heaven’s music here below.”
This story was produced in collaboration with YachatsNews.com, where it can also be read.
More about Louis Southworth:
“A Legacy Beyond the Generations” by Peggy Baldwin, online at Oregon.gov/archives/exhibits/black-history/Documents/southworth-essay.pdf
More about Black people in Oregon:
A Peculiar Paradise: A History of Blacks in Oregon, 1788-1940 by Elizabeth McLagan, available through OSU Press: OSUPress.OregonState.edu/book/peculiar-paradise
More about Peter Helzer:
A video showing the process of bronze sculpture:
Statue unveiling: noon Nov. 19 at Alsea Bay Bridge Interpretive Center & Waldport Museum, 320 NW Hwy 101, Waldport.