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Chainsaw Chair

Chainsaw chair

People often hold reverence for survivors. How they choose to commemorate them can be, well, downright strange. That's the case with this chair carved from a fallen tree.

For many years a large cottonwood tree graced the south lawn of the Kansas State Capitol in Topeka. One legend states that it grew from a stake planted in the ground by a laborer during the building's construction. A more plausible story is that the state adjutant general found the sapling growing among stones being used in the construction and took steps to protect it (more on the cottonwood legend).

The old tree was revered for many years. U.S. presidents are said to have spoken from beneath its wide branches. There was concern for its survival when wind damaged the tree, but time could not be beaten. Age, illness and wind finally felled the cottonwood in 1984. Cuttings were taken from it and today a descendant of the original tree sits at the location of its ancestor.

That would seem to be the end of the story, however, people wanted to commemorate the old cottonwood. In the past when a beloved tree fell, its wood was made into something, such as a piece of furniture or a gavel. To memorialize the statehouse cottonwood, a chair was fashioned from a large hunk of the tree. This was done as one might expect, with a chainsaw. But the wood was not turned into planks with the saw, rather, the chair itself it was carved by a chainsaw.

Chainsaw chair, side view

In mid-October 1984 a sculptor was passing through Kansas City when he heard about the statehouse cottonwood. "Wild Mountain Man" Ray Murphy of Rapid City, South Dakota, had first used a chainsaw to sculpt wood at the age of 10. In 1979 he carved his name on a No. 2 pencil using a chainsaw, which won him recognition by Ripley's Believe It or Not.

After hearing about the cottonwood on the Capitol grounds, Murphy came to Topeka and received two chunks of its trunk. One was made into a sculpture depicting two state symbols--the meadowlark and the sunflower--and presented to the Topeka mayor.

The other chunk was made into a chair and presented to the Kansas Secretary of State. On the inside of the chair is the name "Kansas" with a sunflower, while the seat is carved with a meadowlark. The back shows the seal of the City of Topeka (although reports suggest Murphy was supposed to carve the State Seal). Below is the phrase "Land of Ahs," the state's tourism slogan at the time.

In 1989 the chair was transferred from the Secretary of State's office to the collections of the Kansas Museum of History.

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Entry: Chainsaw Chair

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: January 2007

Date Modified: July 2017

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.