'World's Tallest Barber Pole' still stands, minus the ball on top

'World's Tallest Barber Pole' still stands, minus the ball on top
Photo by Shannon L. Cheesman, KATU.com.

FOREST GROVE, Ore. - What is red, white and blue and towers high above a park in Forest Grove?

Only what's billed as the World's Tallest Barber Pole - a 72-foot tall wooden pole that was dedicated to the city back in the 1970s and reaches up to the sky at Lincoln Park near Pacific University.

It doesn't get a lot of attention these days, but for at least one person in town, it holds a special meaning.

We're talking about longtime Forest Grove resident Chuck Olson - the man who came up with the idea for it in the first place.

We paid him a visit to hear the story of the barber pole but before we get to that, let's talk about Olson.

He's pretty well-known in Forest Grove. He spent 34 years teaching there - 22 years at Forest Grove High School.

"I've been sort of a local boy forever," he said.

He's also a bit of a local celebrity - he's been singing in barbershop quartets for 60 years now.

"I started in 1952 when I was a junior in high school and I've been active in a quartet ever since," he said. "We traveled all over the world performing. It's been a huge part of my life." 

We found a YouTube clip of Olson during his days with The Aliens - his signature group. He's the guy on the far right.

Olson is also quite a collector - he has an entire room at his home dedicated to his collection of antique barber chairs, old shaving mugs and tonic bottles - along with mementos from his performances.

Chuck Olson sits among the barbershop memorabilia that he collects. Photo by Shannon L. Cheesman, KATU.com.

Now about that barber pole...

The story began in the early 1970s when Olson and his fellow singers went to a barbershop quartet convention in San Antonio, Texas. Of course, while they were there they visited The Alamo and that's where the idea came about.

"In front of The Alamo they had the world's tallest barber pole - it was 40 feet tall. And I said to the committee - if treeless Texas could have the world's tallest barber pole, we should be able to outdo that."

When the convention came to Portland, it was the perfect opportunity to showcase a much taller pole. But Olson and his fellow singers didn't really know exactly how they were going to make that happen.

"I didn't know how it was going to come to pass," Olson said. "We couldn't afford to buy an 80-foot pole."

Olson said they ended up getting what they needed from a pole yard near the Memorial Coliseum (now known as the Veterans Memorial Coliseum).

"We were painting it red, white and blue - red, white and blue. And we got it halfway painted and looked back and thought 'this just doesn't look right - it looks like a big candy stick.' So it finally dawned on us that it's red, white, blue, white - red, white, blue, white. There's white in between. And so we had to repaint it."

After redoing their work, they got a Styrofoam ball for the top and the pole was planted in front of the Memorial Coliseum for the convention.

The pole stayed there for a bit after the convention until the Memorial Coliseum folks decided it had to go.

"We took it down and it laid in this pole yard down there," said Olson. "We thought how we hated to just saw it up into firewood. And of course, the pole company didn't want it anymore."

"We didn't know what to do with it and we just hated to destroy it," Olson added.

Is it really the world's tallest barber pole?

"We got word it was officially registered in the Guinness Book of Records, but I've never seen it noted there," Olson told us. We checked with Guinness to find out for sure and discovered that it's actually not registered with them. So for now, at least, it's an unofficial claim that it's the world's tallest.

Did you know?

The barber pole dates back to the Middle Ages when barbers not only cut hair but also performed surgeries. It started out as a representation of bloodletting. The red stripes indicate bloody bandages and the white pole portrayed the white staff that patients would grip to make their veins bigger for the bloodletting process.

For more on the history of the barber pole

That's where Forest Grove comes in. The city is known for its barbershop singing (it has actually been dubbed Ballad Town U.S.A.). It seemed like the perfect fit for a really tall barbershop pole.

"We got a glass ball for the top of it and we had a big dedication ceremony and all that," Olson said. "City officials were there. When it was in Portland, I broke a bottle of hair tonic on it to christen it so we did the same thing (in Forest Grove). One of the city officials, they smashed a bottle on it and my barbershop chorus sang and made a big to do out of it."

The pole was moved a few years back when renovations were done at the park.

It's still there but is missing that glass ball, which never made it back onto the pole after the move.

So where is the ball now?

It's actually with Forest Grove Parks & Recreation, which plans on putting it back up at some point. Olson said he's anxious to see that happen.

"When they took it down, our committee went out there and repainted the whole thing and then they put it back up," Olson said. "But much to my chagrin, they have not put the glass ball on top. And right now it doesn't have the ball on top, which makes it somewhat incomplete."

We talked with Forest Grove Parks & Recreation to find out more about the glass ball. Director Tom Gamble said they do plan on putting it back up there at some point. They have to coordinate that with the fire department to get a fire ladder up to the top of the pole.

"I realize it's important to some people," Gamble said. "As soon as we can get the fire department to get the truck down there, we'll make it happen."

If you would like to watch a local barber shop quartet perform, the 67th annual All-Northwest Barber Shop Quartet Contest is coming up March 22-23 in Forest Grove. Ticket Information