ASHEVILLE, NC — Chief Pontiac, the giant fiberglass statue of a Native American that for decades stood in a car lot atop a hill overlooking Patton Avenue, has left his post.
The owners of Harry's on the Hill, the dealership over which the 23-foot sentinel stood for more than 50 years, decided to remove Chief Pontiac in early June in part because of a disrespectful interaction between an employee and a customer.
While Chief Pontiac has left Asheville for good, his run is far from over, according to Pat Grimes, owner of Harry's. The dealership entrusted the fiberglass statue to Joel Baker, whose company, American Giants, restores the large fiberglass statues, often called "muffler men" because they frequently were located at muffler shops.
"He and some friends who work with him go all over the country and find these muffler men and rescue them, and then they restore them and find homes for them," Grimes said. "He's on his way to Natural Bridge, Virginia, to be restored."
After that, Chief Pontiac will find a final resting home at the Pontiac-Oakland Transportation Museum in Pontiac, Michigan, which will open in the coming months. Located in a former school, the 56,000-square-foot museum will be a nonprofit educational operation focused on the history of transportation in America, including the Pontiac car brand.
"We’ve had lots of offers for him," Grimes said. "To me, this one is going to Pontiac Michigan, and he would be in place where you can actually see why he was called Chief Pontiac and see that he was associated with the Pontiac Motor Car Division. So it just seemed like an appropriate place."
Harry's donated the chief.
The decision was spurred in part by the female customer's bad experience. A woman who is an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians went to Harry's to buy a car and instead received a derogatory text message from an employee.
The dealership's announcement described the incident as an "ugly, insulting and inappropriate text message" a sales employee sent to a would-be customer, a member of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians. The man was fired immediately, the statement said.
"We want to emphasize how much we value our relationship with all of our Western North Carolina customers and we pledge to take whatever actions are needed to guarantee that no one at Harry's On the Hill ever experiences anything like this again," it read.
Some found statue offensive, others saw it as an icon
But even before that incident, the statue was controversial. For many people, Chief Pontiac stood as a symbol of cultural appropriation, an ugly reminder of racial disparities that should've never found a home here.
Bo Taylor, executive director of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, previously told the Citizen-Times that the statue was tone-deaf and offensive.
"I never overlook it," he said. "I go in a lot of places and they may have a cigar store Indians — I see it, I notice it, but I don’t mention it. It doesn’t mean it’s not offensive in some way."
But Chief Pontiac was not without his fans, too. He stood atop the hill long enough to become somewhat of a landmark to people familiar with the Asheville area. Several people took to social media Friday morning to voice their disapproval with the statue's removal.
As is usually the case, the contentious social media debate, which has played out numerous times since the dealership announced its decision in early June, drew a lot of eyes.
One Facebook post about the statue being taken down generated more than 400 comments worth of at times heated debate.
Statue removed without fanfare
The scene at Harry's on Friday morning couldn't have been more different. Police had blocked both entrances to the dealership and wouldn't let anybody on the premises during the statue's removal. They were there at the request of the dealership, one officer said.
Grimes said they had to cut the power to the dealership because Chief Pontiac was so close to power lines. Also, they had to bring a crane in to remove the statue, and for safety reasons they did not want to have cars driving by workers.
The police officers and a couple of reporters were about the only people who watched the statue come down. With the exception of passersby who watched the crane lift the statue off its pedestal, Chief Pontiac was removed without fanfare or incident.
Pontiac had arrowheads in him
Grimes said the removal process "was fascinating to watch," but she also said the chief was not in great shape.
"He was damaged," Grimes said. "When they lifted him up with the crane, there were two steel poles supporting him, and one was rusted out completely and fell over. They said, 'You guys are rescuing him just in time."
Once Pontiac was lifted down, workers actually crawled inside the statue to disassemble it.
Workers discovered that at some point in his career as an advertising pitchman, Chief Pontiac had been wounded.
"We recovered two arrow tips inside him," Grimes said. "They looked like they were from years ago when people used to shoot him with arrows. We don’t know how long they've been in there."
After Baker's team took Pontiac down, they loaded him on a modified boat trailer. The whole process took about an hour.
On a side note, Grimes said they were all surprised at the height of Pontiac's feather, which was close to 3 feet.