Lake Ronkonkoma was a Long Island destination for the well-off in New York City in the 1920s. Those days are long gone.
But there is a new attraction coming to Ronkonkoma, the kind of roadside folly that used to draw travelers, like the World’s Largest Ball of Twine or a three-story Paul Bunyan.
This does have some historical precedent. Legend has it that Lake Ronkonkoma is where a Native American princess, Tuskawanta, of the Algonquin, drowns at least one male each year as she seeks her true love. This grim lore is being honored by a new roadside attraction: a 32-foot-tall statue of the Lady of the Lake, carved from a tree with a history perhaps just as impressive.
The wood was salvaged from a European copper beech tree that was brought to America in 1820 to honor the bicentennial of the pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock. The trees originate in Scandinavia and live for 600 years in ideal circumstances.
This was one of five ordered from England, shipped to New York, picked up by the Newton Family of Ronkonkoma and brought by horse and wagon to its current location, according to Ellyn Okvist, president of the Lake Ronkonkoma Heritage Association. The tree once stood 100 feet before it died and its branches were trimmed off in 2015.
It sits on the property of Virginia Schutte, 71, a florist who has a shop a few feet from the tree. Schutte said her family has lived in the area for five generations and she has owned the property for 45 years.
Talks of turning the tree into something special started about 13 years ago, when Todd Arnett, a sculptor from Michigan, moved up the road from Schutte.
“I loved this tree the first time I saw it,” Arnett said. “This place is special to me. I landed here somehow by divine nature.”
He made the first cut on Dec. 3, 2017, and in a few months of mostly wintry conditions he has made considerable progress with the face, headdress and a cormorant bird being held near the chest.
The carving will run from head to toe and could take up to another year or more to complete, said Arnett, 48, who is donating his time to complete the project.
His primary tool is a chain saw, which he uses for 95 percent of the job, after which he smooths his cuts with an angle grinder and finally uses a die grinder, a high-speed rotary machine, that allows him to carve more meticulously in certain areas. He uses a chisel for fine details. Finally, he burns the wood with a torch to accent shadows. Over time, the burn marks will fade, and he will retouch spots that need adjusting.
“I like carving something and seeing how the sun fades it,” he said. “The character that comes out changes over the creation many times.”
Before he began, Arnett met with representatives from Shinnecock Indian Nation in eastern Long Island so he could discuss the headdress and other design principles with their leaders. They shared excitement for the project and were happy to provide the requested guidance, he said.
“It means a lot because here on Long Island the presence of Native American culture, not only historically but in the present day, is pretty sparse,” said David Bunn Martine, director of the Shinnecock Nation Cultural Center and Museum. “It’s very nice anytime an artist is interested in dealing with Native American imagery or culture, and also gets in touch with us to discuss their projects because artists are not necessarily attuned with current details or Native decedents.”
According to the myth, Princess Tuskawanta fell in love with a white boy named Hugh Birdsall, whom her father, a Sachem from nearby Setauket, forbade her to see.
“He referred to him as ‘a foe of her race,’ and banned him from Lake Ronkonkoma,” said Okvist, the historian.
Driving by the lakefront, passers-by might catch a glimpse of Arnett sawing away. He usually works on the carving at night or on the weekends when he is not out working on larger art projects around Long Island or at his home gallery. Draped in protective gear and wearing earbuds bursting with an instrumental station on Pandora, he goes into a space “that’s so peaceful.”
“I just see it and I have no idea how, but I can make it how I see it,” he added. “You see the carving that’s happened and you can imagine the physical labor. You put all that together and that’s still just 20 percent of the labor. It’s nonstop in the mind.”
He said he has run into occasional patches of rot in the tree, but the project has been met with praise from community members, he said. Some are even hoping it may bring tourists to the Ronkonkoma region, among them Schutte.
“What’s most important to me is bringing this town back to where it was,” she said. “This was a tourist area when I was a child. I love remembering those times and I want that again.”
Project: 32-foot Native American princess carving
Driving Force: The artist Todd Arnett
Cost: $8,000-10,000 on equipment and scaffolding
Length of Project left: Began in December 2017, could have up to 1-2 years left of carving
Biggest Obstacle: Funding, tree rotting, weather
Site: 279 Lake Shore Rd., Lake Ronkonkoma, New York
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Chris R. Vaccaro © 2018 The New York Times