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The Rapids Owl soon will perch again

LOCKPORT – For nearly 60 years, a giant figure of an owl perched on a concrete pedestal at Rapids and Plank roads in the hamlet of Rapids.

Now, after a restoration project by Town of Lockport Highway Superintendent David J. Miller and his family, the owl will rise again.

The Rapids Fire Company is acquiring a small piece of property next to the fire hall to mount the 8-foot-tall owl on a new base. Ceremonies to break ground for the base are set for Aug. 29, during a hamletwide celebration, with town officials and State Sen. Robert G. Ortt wielding the shovels.

Andrew Doyle, president of the fire company, said the owl will be mounted within a garden the company plans to create on the vacant lot. “It’ll be right out front,” he said of the owl.

The new concrete base will be painted with the slogan “Welcome to Rapids,” serving as a greeting, just as the old one did.

The original pedestal, about 4 feet tall, still stands in front of the now-vacant building that once was the fire hall. However, Town Clerk Nancy A. Brooks said, it can no longer be used because it stands within the county right-of-way for Rapids Road.

The presence of the owl predated the Owl Inn, a bar that operated in the former fire hall until about 25 years ago. The inn was named after the owl, not the other way around, Town Historian Laurence M. Haseley emphasized.

“There were claws painted on it to make it look like it was perching on a log,” Miller said.

So why in the world would anyone build an owl monument in Rapids?

The answer lies with the memory of a legendary Rapids character, Joe Edwards – “Uncle Joe” to all his friends. He died Nov. 5, 1936, at the age of 96, after living the last 69 years of his life in Rapids.

Edwards was known as the “wise old owl,” Brooks said, and so the members of the volunteer fire company, which was incorporated in 1935, came up with the idea of building an owl to remember him.

“He got a lot of credit for being a general good citizen,” Haseley said. Edwards operated a general store and was the postmaster back when Rapids rated a post office. “He was a schoolteacher, too,” Haseley said, and for a while he taught both in Rapids and Clarence.

“He claimed to be a judge, but I’ve gone through all the records and he never was a judge in the Town of Lockport,” Haseley said. Edwards joined the Army during the Civil War, but never fought in a battle. “He got as far as Washington, D.C., before Lee surrendered,” Haseley said. Two years after the end of the war, Edwards settled in Rapids and stayed there, except for about four years when he crossed Tonawanda Creek and lived in Clarence.

Haseley said there were a couple of trees across the road from the store where owls used to perch, which was another reason for the Owl nickname for Edwards. “He said he got a lot of his wisdom from the owls,” the historian said. In later years, Edwards even had a local newspaper column called “A Hoot from the Owl.”

The trees stood where the original fire hall was built in 1935. While the volunteers were there, they kept a tavern in the basement, with a bay for a fire truck behind the cooler, Haseley said. After the fire company moved out in 1959, that building became the Owl Inn.

The exempt members from the fire company founded the Owl Club in 1937 and decided to build the owl statue, which was dedicated in May 1937. The owl is made of steel covering two pieces of half-inch-thick plywood. In all, it’s about 2½ inches thick, not counting the yellow metal beak.

An old newspaper photo shows a small girl named Gloria Dietz posing in front of the pedestal. Now Gloria Chaffee, the 83-year-old woman still lives in the Town of Lockport and has agreed to attend the Aug. 29 ceremony, Doyle said.

Painted on the pedestal, but long since faded away, were a couple of lines from a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem: “Was it the Owl the Koko-koho / Hooting from the dismal forest.”

Below that was printed, “In memory of Uncle Joe Edwards.”

The fire company’s move was precipitated by a 1959 fire that ruined the second floor of the building, which was used as a recreation hall. The second floor was removed and the building became a single story.

But the owl still stood on the pedestal. The original eyes of the owl were glass and lights flashed on and off behind the glass, which later became Plexiglas, Miller said. He replaced the electrical box attached to the owl’s back, and told the Town Board that the eyes could be replaced with solar-powered lights.

But some skullduggery entered the picture after the Owl Inn closed about a quarter-century ago. In the late 1990s, someone stole the owl.

Miller said, “No one ever wanted to give a true account of how it was stolen, because the guy who stole it is dead.”

The stories of how the owl was rediscovered don’t jibe with each other. Haseley said he started to make inquiries around 2006, and a friend of his, whom he wouldn’t identify, found the owl in a field.

Miller said it was found outside a barn on Bowen Road. A caller to a WLVL Radio show a few weeks ago claimed it had been stashed in the barn.

Haseley said, “I’m not going to say that it wasn’t there at one time, but that’s not where it was found by my friend.”

Haseley said his friend kept the owl statue in his basement for five years, until Haseley himself put it in a pickup truck and took it to the fire hall. “They put it upstairs and hid it away,” he claimed.

Finally, during the Rapids installation dinner in January 2014, the rediscovery of the owl was officially disclosed, Brooks said.

Then it was turned over to Miller, an exempt member of the fire company, for restoration. The work was done in the basement of the Miller home.

The owl received a fresh paint job. Ginny Miller, the highway superintendent’s wife, said she probably spent 15 hours on the repainting.

“I tried to follow the color as closely as I could,” she said. “I tried to reuse the Plexiglas.”

Miller’s son, David Jr., also helped with the restoration.

Haseley said the new location of the owl, a lot at 7171 Plank Road, was the former location of the Dorcliff Inn.

The owl statue now rests in a garage behind the main fire hall, awaiting its rededication.

Miller said, “More than anything, it’s a piece of history, and now it’s back where it belongs.”