Cavemen Club at Oregon Caves National Monument.
Cavemen of the Cavemen Club at Oregon Caves National Monument.

Grants Pass Caveman

Field review by the editors.

Grants Pass, Oregon

Why does a small community in Oregon have a giant Neanderthal as its mascot?

The Caveman statue as he looks today.
The Caveman statue as it looks today.

It takes a little explaining.

Grants Pass is the nearest city to Oregon Caves National Monument. When a road was opened to the caves in 1920s, Grants Pass businessmen decided to form a "Caveman Club" to promote the area. The Cavemen, dressed in wigs and animal skins, became notorious (and popular) for their rude antics, hijacking celebrities and crashing public ceremonies uninvited. Countless politicians, including four future U.S. Presidents -- Herbert Hoover, JFK, Nixon, and Ronald Reagan -- were initiated into the Cavemen Club by drinking "sabertooth blood" out of the butt of a stuffed skunk.

"The Cavemen stopped the 1937 ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Golden Gate Bridge for 45 minutes," said current Caveman "Big Chief" James Lowe, his voice reverent with awe. "They never asked for permission. They asked for forgiveness."

1970: Caveman's plaster head in sculptor's garage. Daughter Vanessa provides scale.
1970: Caveman's plaster head in sculptor's garage. Daughter Vanessa provides scale.

The popularity of the Cavemen spawned other tributes in Grants Pass. High school sports teams became the Cavemen. Businesses in town embraced the name: Caveman Roofing, Caveman Towing, the Caveman Bowl. And in 1971 the Cavemen Club raised $10,000 to pay International Fiberglass -- makers of the Muffler Men -- to create an imposing 16-foot-tall Caveman statue for Grants Pass.

"I sculpted it out of plaster; it took about a month. I made the head in my garage," said Richard Ellis, the artist who created the Caveman in Los Angeles in 1970. "International Fiberglass made molds of my model, and as far as I knew that was the end of it." Richard had no idea where the statue was headed, and went on to a long career as a professional sculptor, creating serious artworks in bronze and stone for public spaces across the country. "And then I moved to Grants Pass and, lo and behold, there's that damned Caveman."

Tamie Saffer gives the Caveman his 2014 makeover.
Tamie Saffer gives the Caveman statue its 2014 makeover.

We asked Richard about the Caveman's odd, "dislocated" right arm. "Believe it or not, the inspiration for that arm was Michelangelo," said Richard. "It was the Rondanini Pieta, where it looks like he changed his mind in the middle of the sculpture and carved the arm hanging away from the body. That's my favorite Michelangelo sculpture."

Brutish cavemen of Oregon.
Caveman Andrew "Rising Buck" Giesemann on guard as the statue is taken in for repairs.

On July 4, 2004, a 17-year-old devolved brute stuck a lit flare in the Caveman's hand -- the same hand inspired by Michelangelo -- to make the statue look like it was holding a sparkler. The combustible Caveman was badly burned, and some residents of Grants Pass began to ask why the city had a "brutish" "illiterate" Neanderthal as its civic symbol. Many members of the Cavemen Club had grown old; their legendary shenanigans were now seen as retrograde and offensive. The statue was repaired, but quickly began to weather, and the old Cavemen members didn't have the strength or cash to restore it. In early 2013 The Wall Street Journal published a long feature story essentially predicting the extinction of the Caveman.

But he was tougher than his supposedly more evolved critics. A new generation of Cavemen Club members took the statue -- "Big Bro" as James Lowe called it -- to a Grants Pass auto body shop, where it was repainted and enhanced with a full beard, more hair, nicer eyes, and bigger muscles. "Tamie Saffer did the makeover. She was a tattoo artist, but, I mean, she was an artist," said James. In May 2014 the restored statue was placed on a trailer and celebrated as the Grand Marshal of Grants Pass's annual Boatnik Festival parade, accompanied by an honor guard of goofy, but "kinder, gentler" Cavemen. The statue was also carried by forklift to the high school and to all of the Caveman-named businesses in town, before being returned to its eight-foot-high rock pedestal.

"It's all gussied up and shiny now. I've lived long enough that now my old stuff is being saved," said Richard Ellis, still somewhat perplexed by the statue's popularity. "Any time my family comes to visit we have to go and stand in front of the Caveman for pictures."

Big Chief James Lowe sees nothing perplexing in the Caveman, and estimated that 98 percent of Grants Pass citizens are in favor of its 1,500-pound Neanderthal. "He's big and ugly and we're darned proud of him."

Also see: Richard Ellis: Right-Hand Man | Little Bros Cavemen

Grants Pass Caveman

Address:
1995 NW Vine St., Grants Pass, OR
Directions:
North edge of the city, just south of I-5 exit 58, on the west side of OR-99, just south of the first stoplight.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Little Bros CavemenLittle Bros Cavemen, Grants Pass, OR - 1 mi.
Muffler Man - Paul BunyanMuffler Man - Paul Bunyan, Grants Pass, OR - 3 mi.
Batman, Formerly a TreeBatman, Formerly a Tree, Rogue River, OR - 8 mi.
In the region:
Fizzy Lithia Water Fountain, Ashland, OR - 36 mi.

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