John Svenson and ‘Ranchero’

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The Upland sculptor’s 22-foot statue of an early California rancher, based on Pomona founder Ygnacio Palomares, has stood at the L.A. County Fair since 1953. My column today tells the story. You can read it by clicking below. Here’s Svenson, 87, with his handiwork on Sept. 22 outside the Millard Sheets Center for the Arts.

They’ve logged six decades at the Fair

NOT EVERY beloved feature at the L.A. County Fair has lasted, whether it’s the Toad in the Hole stand or the Clock Tower, both gone, or the Giant Slide, doomed after this year.

And yet outside the Millard Sheets Center for the Arts, a redwood sculpture of Pomona’s founder has gazed at fairgoers for almost 60 years.

And inside the center, the figure’s sculptor, John Svenson, is gazing at fairgoers too.

Svenson, 87, is displaying examples of his work, hawking his biography (written by his son) and holding forth most days of the Fair, which ends Sunday.

The white-haired San Antonio Heights resident now uses a walker and was recently fitted for a hearing aid, but his sly sense of humor remains intact.

Of the Fair audience, Svenson says: “This is a cross-section of humanity — which is enough to scare you half to death sometimes.”

How did the “Ranchero” figure come to be? With Svenson ensconced only yards from his creation, I decided to ask.

In 1952, the Fair got a portion of a 2,000-year-old Coastal redwood and contracted with Svenson to carve it into something Mexican-related.

He had already been working with Albert Stewart on “Bull Wall,” a brick relief sculpture that likewise still stands on the Sheets patio.

The redwood deal was masterminded by Tevis Paine, the Fair’s publicity manager, who milked even the transport of the log for free ink.

“At that point you could haul 20-foot logs legally. Tevis Paine, being the publicity agent, cut it to 22 feet,” Svenson says.

According to Svenson, police in every town stopped the truck and wrote a citation, and every newspaper along the route had a photo of the truck’s oversized load, each noting that it was bound for the L.A. County Fair in Pomona.

Now that’s genius. The first idea of what to do with the log, however, was a dud.

Two Mexican American consultants from L.A.’s Olvera Street advised the Fair to produce a condescending, stereotypical image.

“They wanted a giant saguaro cactus and a Mexican guy with a big hat against it sound asleep,” Svenson says. “I said, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ ”

Over objections, he says, he pursued his own concept. It was based on lore about Ygnacio Palomares, who with business partner Ricardo Vejar got a land grant from Mexico in 1837 for 22,000 acres of present-day Pomona, La Verne, Claremont, Covina and environs.

From atop Ganesha Hill, adjacent to today’s fairgrounds, Palomares’ land grant “extended as far as the eye could see,” Svenson says.

And so he sculpted a towering figure of Palomares, dubbed “Ranchero” after the Californio ranch owners of the era. The figure wears a cape, carries an ax for tree-clearing and gazes down at his holdings — or in this case at people eating food on a stick.

It was the largest figure the young Svenson had ever attempted. He first created a one-fourth-size version, which he’s showing off at this year’s Fair. Then, using that model as a guide, he climbed scaffolding to carve the figure’s face and shoulders, working his way down the 22-foot log.

He spent a couple of days a week for a year, from September 1952 to September 1953, sculpting the figure.

Fairgoers observed him at work. One woman, evidently not believing the strapping, wavy-haired Svenson could be a sculptor, asked him when the artist would return. He told her to keep an eye out for a weaselly guy with a mustache and beret.

Others asked if the redwood sculpture would continue to grow.

“Yep, they’ll probably have to prune it once a year,” Svenson liked to reply.

Svenson’s resume is too long to include here, and besides, you should buy his book, “Exploring Form.” But as far as the Fair is concerned, he worked from 1961 to 1987 as its part-time design consultant, choosing colors, overseeing architecture and creating features such as fountains, the monorail and Heritage Farm.

“Ranchero” stood for several decades in the Court of the Redwoods and was moved to the front of the Sheets Center in 2001. Svenson says there’s talk of moving it to an indoors setting.

“The whole top has rotted off, water has gotten inside it and termites have been eating it. I think it’s shrinking. The head is narrower than it was then,” Svenson says.

But that, he adds, may have improved its proportions.

“Looking up at it,” Svenson says, “I’m more satisfied with it now than I was then.”

David Allen writes Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, unsatisfyingly. E-mail david.allen@inlandnewspapers.com, call 909-483-9339 or write 2041 E. Fourth St., Ontario 91764. Read his blog at dailybulletin.com/davidallenblog

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  • April

    Oh it will probably be gone after a year or two, they always seem to remove all the landmarks that have brought so many wonderful memories of the L.A. County Fair!

  • Ygnacio Palomares

    My sincere thanks to John Svenson for his vision and his incredible talent in honoring me in this fine sculpture. My family history is also well written in Bess Garner’s book “Windows In An Old Adobe” that you can get at the Pomona Historical Society…just ask for Mickey. And as for you, David, “Thank You” once again for your sincere interest and insights into my old city/valley…and until my next comment…”Vaya Con Dios.”

  • David Svenson

    Thanks David for the great article on my father.

    Looking closely at the Ranchero sculpture last week I noticed the woodpeckers are going after the head. This is new and once they start it will be the final burial of the piece.

    John has requested that the piece be protected under cover for the last twenty years. My hopes are that as well. The fair isn’t the fair any more but a large corporation with little interest in the past.

    A better location such as the new Bradley International Terminal is a vision that would welcome visitors to LA and a bit of LA’s history. The sad thing is I don’t know where to start.

  • JMac

    Interesting that it hasn’t been covered for the past twenty years. Because when it resided in the Court of the Redwoods, it was. I know, because I covered it each year after the Fair. That was in the 70′s, and it had a specially made form fitting tarp which covered it in its entirety. I’m guessing that the tarp eventually eroded and the Fair never replaced it.