by Sheila S.
The Tree Circus started as a tourist attraction in Scotts Valley in 1947. It featured sculpted trees, their trunks shaped into curlicues, hearts, diamonds, squares and zigzags. The trees had names that included the Oliver Twist Tree, Needle and Thread Tree, Double Corkscrew, and Cathedral Window.
Axel Erlandson was the creator of these tree trunk topiaries. He was born in 1884, the son of Swedish immigrants. In the early 1900’s his family moved from Minnesota to a farm in central California. Erlandson was a bean and alfalfa farmer who started grafting and shaping tree trunks as a hobby. Bending four sycamores on a six-foot square plot into a cupola, he named it the Four-Legged Giant and encouraged by this initial success, he went on to create more complex designs, working from drawings.
He experimented with box elders, birch, ash, elms and weeping willows, using young and flexible branches bent into loops, hearts, chairs, spiral staircases, zigzags, rings, birdcages, towers, picture frames and ladders, held in place with a framework for several years until they were capable of self-supporting. The process included grafting and pleaching, as well as other specialist techniques he called "trade secrets." Erlandson would not tell anyone his secrets of arbor sculpture. If someone asked he would just say that "he talked to the trees."
Erlandson crafted about 28 sculptured trees at his farm near Turlock, California. By the mid-1940’s, Erlandson was ready to retire from farming and concentrate his efforts on his trees. In 1946, after a vacation with his wife and daughter in Santa Cruz, where they visited the gravity-defying Mystery Spot, he purchased a ¾ acre parcel in nearby Scotts Valley, California and transplanted about a dozen of his living trees, some were over 20 years old. In 1947, the Tree Circus opened for business with a 25-cent admission fee. The Tree Circus appeared often in Ripley’s "Believe It or Not!" during the late 1940’s and 1950’s. It also appeared in Life Magazine and other national and international publications. Although the venture was never the money maker Erlandson intended, he devoted his life to the trees, and delighted in showing them to passing motorists who stopped by.
In the early 1960’s, Erlandson tried unsuccessfully to have the state parks take over the management of his enterprise. In 1963, due to poor health, he sold the property along with the trees. Axel Erlandson died in 1964. At that time, about 74 of his arboreal sculptures remained. During the next twenty years the property changed hands and the trees suffered from neglect.
Mark Primack, a Santa Cruz architect became a knowledgeable authority on the Tree Circus and the life of Axel Erlandson. Through his efforts many of the trees were saved. His campaign to save the trees caught the attention of Michael Bonfante, a nurseryman, tree lover and owner of Nob Hill Foods. In 1984, he purchased the collection of 25 circus trees.
By the mid-1970’s, Bonfante had created a park for Nob Hill employees
in the Gilroy Area. He envisioned expanding it into a garden theme park
open to the public. After selling Nob Hill Foods to Raley’s in 1998, Bonfante
turned his complete attention to creating the Bonfante Gardens Theme Park.
The Park opened in 2001 with the living sculpted trees as one of the attractions.
The legacy of Axel Erlandson lives on at the Bonfante Gardens Theme Park.