San Juan Hill recreated in a beautiful carving by Bluff Fort Service Missionary Jerry Allred
As the Mormon pioneers who went through the Hole-in-the-Rock from 1879 to 1880 drew near to their final destination in southeastern Utah, they encountered a formidable barrier known as Comb Ridge.
They had already descended down through the Hole-in-the Rock to the Colorado River, blasted roads through sandstone, and forged other trails around Grand Gulch. They were broken and discouraged.
To overcome the obstacle of Comb Ridge, these pioneers labored on a steep trail they could ascend to get on the other side. They called this site on the ridge San Juan Hill.
To bring this scene to life, Jerry Allred, 2019-20 Bluff Fort Service Missionary was asked to recreate a wood carving depicting the daunting San Juan Hill.
Jerry was born in Twin Falls, ID, but hails from Tremonton, UT. During his adult life he worked at various jobs. He taught junior high agriculture, woodshop and biology. He also helped build chapel and temple steeples all over the country for the LDS Church.
As a child, Jerry watched his dad carve wood and whittle a toy-sized cow and was fascinated. Over the years he had the notion that carving was something he would like to do. However, with no wood shop at his home or even his high school, that dream was put on hold.
His first experience with art was when he was a kid. When Jerry’s teacher thought he was taking notes, he was drawing pictures. His teacher found out Jerry was taking notes on test days! He took his first art class at Ricks College and also attended workshops sporadically.
Carving birds out of wood was always his desire. He was introduced to that form of art in the early ’80s when he was attending Brigham Young University. Jerry watched a man carving a duck for a class that he was teaching. He wasn’t able to attend the week-long class but knew that was something he wanted to do in the future.
About ten years ago, he and his wife, Paula, were on vacation in Idaho. They ran across a lady from Burley named Lona Hymas Smith. She was a professional bird carver and had a booth at the Sun Valley craft show.
Lona was doing everything Jerry wanted to do as far as creating birds and various things out of wood so they sat down and visited with her.
The visit paid off. Lona helped Jerry start his desire to carve birds. Lona acted as his critique and his inspiration on wood carving. She actually talked him into competing.
After he carved his first song birds Lona and Paula planned a trip to go to a 2005 world contest in Ocean City, MD. They thought Jerry’s bird was good enough to “go to the world.” That bird went into the novice level and won first place.
From there, Jerry progressed into carving other birds and entering them into other regional contests around the country – selling a few here and there. After several years of carving birds, he began carving old wagons and buggies on small habitats with rocks.
Jerry stated, “I determined that particle board made a great looking rock and the wagons and horses I carve are made from pieces of pine.
“The birds are carved out of a different wood that I get from Louisiana that is called tupelo and it’s grown in the swamps down there.”
People have asked Jerry, “What brought you to Bluff, UT?” Here is the ‘Rest of the Story’ in Jerry’s own words.
“In 2015, Paula and I were driving down to Houston, TX for a family event and we stopped at the Blanding Visitors Center. The guide told us about Bluff Fort.
“It struck our curiosity, so we drove down and found out that we could serve there as LDS Service Missionaries, something we wanted to consider after we retired.
“Our goal came true; Paula and I started serving at the Bluff Fort in March 2019. In August, Bluff Fort Director, Jim Orr, asked me if I could do a wood rendition of San Juan Hill.
“Earlier that year we had the opportunity to walk up to the hill and it was like, “Wow, it’s amazing that these pioneers were able to do this with team and wagon.”
“When I was approached, I was overwhelmed and excited. I knew I could do it, but I wasn’t sure what it should look like. I immediately started carving horses thinking the scene would be on flat ground.
“I carved ten horses standing flat, but when I got to the eleventh, Jim said, ‘Shouldn’t these horses be going uphill since they are representing the animals pulling wagons up San Juan Hill?’
“I said, ‘Yes.’ So I went back to the drawing board and completely started over, carving 14 new horses.
“I put all of my previously-carved horses in a tote, though one went to Spain. I had a man visit the Fort who belonged to a carving club in Spain. This carving club carves a nativity scene each year in some foreign country.
“That year they had picked the United States and they wanted to make the nativity scene as if it was in in the 1860s. I asked him what size his animals were going to be.
“When he told me, I got one of my horses out of the tote and gave it to him. After Christmas I received a text from this gentleman telling me that my horse was in a nativity scene somewhere in Spain.
“How long did it take to carve the horses? From the time I start to cut the wood, it took a couple of hours to cut out the three pieces. Then I glued them together.
“The next day the glue was dry and I would start to carve and finish the horse the next day. So, about two-and-a-half days per horse.
“The reason you aren’t able to see a seam on these horses is because they are sanded and painted with three or four coats of sub-paint which covers up the wood grains and the seams.
“Then you put on three or four more coats of the coloring paint. The harnesses, strips, and reins took about as long as the horses.
“People keep asking me, ‘How long did it take you to carve this entire project?’ I worked two to four hours some days on the it; other days I did other projects; other days I worked on the project three to five hours.
“I averaged my time and figure it took over 500 hours to complete this project. I did all the horses first, with no painting. Then I started the rock of the San Juan Hill – two months’ worth of work.
“Some have asked, ‘Why did you use particle board?’ Particle board is made up of all of these particles so when you carve them it looks like rock. The texture creates a nice-looking rock.
“So, it was the horses first, the hill and the wagon came next. It is a very detailed wagon. I kept going out to the old original wagon outside of the Bluff Fort wood shop to make sure I was doing the details correct.
“I had carved – and sold – a few wagons in the past, so I knew the undercarriage had to have specific parts and names. The wheels – including the spokes – are all made out of one piece of wood. All the bushes are also carved out of wood.
“When I got ready to carve Jens Nielson, this was the first person I ever carved. I carved the feet, legs, and rear end in one piece, the torso in a piece, the head and hat, and two arms in separate pieces. I glued them all together, sanded, and painted.
“I always use just regular wood glue on pine. It works well. On the harnesses I used plain old super glue because it sets up fast. When I glue parts that need to stay together immediately, I use super glue gel.
“Sometimes it bothered me that I would give out assignments to the other missionaries, they would go out to work, and I would sit down in the shop and start carving. I was thinking, ‘What if this doesn’t turn out very good.’ But I think it turned out okay.
“I was asked to describe the feelings I felt as I was carving this project. I often wonder if all of my carving experience was preparing me to come to Bluff Fort to donate my time and talents to leave behind something for the visitors to see to help tell the story. Most visitors do not have the privilege of going out to see San Juan Hill.”
After her interview with Jerry Allred, Bev Vowell Black stated, “I totally marvel every year at the different talents the various Bluff Fort Service Missionaries have that make the Fort an even more amazing place to visit.
“It was never mentioned when Jerry interviewed to be a Service Missionary that he was a wood carver. Somehow the Bluff Fort Director, Jim Orr, found out this man’s talent and what a blessing that was!
“I have never seen a piece of artwork that touched my soul like this replica of San Juan Hill. The first time I walked into the Bluff Fort wood shop and saw this amazing rendition, I simply broke down and cried.
“I can only imagine how touched the Hole-in-the-Rock pioneers in heaven must be feeling right now knowing that someone was willing to create a replica of one of the most difficult accomplishments they experienced in 1880 just prior to reaching the site they would call Bluff.”
This six-foot carving will be on permanent display at the Bluff Fort Co-op in Bluff, UT when it eventually reopens just in time for Jens Nielson’s 200th birthday celebration all year. It is a must-see!