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Mr. Irving: His Life and Legend

October 20, 2015 Think THF


Mr. Irving - vertical

Back in the late 1990s when The Henry Ford offered the Legend of Sleepy Hollow and the Story of Ichabod Crane program in Greenfield Village, there was a need to flesh out some areas with unique, yet iconic “set dressing” that would augment the rural and spooky flavor of the story we were trying to tell.  Scarecrows were ubiquitous fixtures of kitchen gardens and some field crops over the years to deter birds and other such creatures from unintentional feasting. “Scarecrows” are still used today although a variety of designs, materials and articulations are very few of which take on a human form or shape - a far cry from the days of old.

It didn't take long until our team was challenged with the premise that we needed something large enough to make a visual impact and yet manageable and nimble enough to be used as temporary structure. Inspiration began to pour in from various imagery, films and shows, and descriptive language from literature, along with my own imagination, I created a 16-foot tall scarecrow affectionately named Mr. Irving after author George Washington Irving.  Since those autumn nights more than 15 years ago and still today, Mr. Irving has been a part of the Greenfield Village’s fall and Hallowe’en programming.  He has been photographed by thousands of guests and his inspiration lives on with many Mr. Irving lookalikes popping up in yards all over southeastern Michigan.

How did we do it?


mr-i-blueprints-2Mr. Irving was created using minimal and everyday materials, but his presence is huge. Given the necessity for simplicity in deployment and taking down, as well as surviving the gales of unpredictable Michigan weather, he had to be made with such considerations in mind. The skeleton or under framing of his large and menacing stature is constructed of a long single wooden 2x4 as the spine or center “mast” with a shorter horizontal one connected near the top with a carriage bolt. At the ends of the shoulder 2x4 is connected two arms with a single carriage bolt each. The arms were milled to a taper from this point to the wrist. All the wooden skeleton structure was painted a flat black with a white vertebrate spine painted on the upper portion of the vertical 2x4 as this area can be seen through his open garment. Several pipe hanger brackets on the lower back side allows for the entire scarecrow to slip on to a metal rod driven into the ground at an angle allowing him to stand upright with a lean toward the viewer.

The long spindly hands and fingers of Mr. Irving were made with the knurliest gnarliest Hawthorne branches that could be had.  Ones with a couple long and slightly curved stems, as if a hand about to clutch an object, were chosen.  The thicker end of the branches were attached to eight inch wooden dowel that could slip into matching wrist holes at the end of the arm 2x4s. Heavy-duty cable ties were used to initially lash the branches to the dowel but these were covered completely by tightly wrapping old, but still strong and durable, sisal twine and strips of burlap. The twine was wound securely, but haphazardly and the ends were left slightly long wherein I teased and scarified the ends with a pruning saw – the sharp aggressive teeth are perfect for this. Adding a bit of faux Spanish moss and dried leaves, once in position, adds to the look.

The "stylish" Mr. Irving has a suite of clothes inspired by a mixture of an 18th century caped cloak and 19th century frock coat. All in black fabrics, I used a plain weave cotton broadcloth for the torso section and cape.  The front placket, collar and cuffs were of black velvet to stand out. A single large hook-n-eye closed the collar. The center front of the suit was meant to gape open, an inverted ‘V’ from the collar down, to expose the undergarment and his spine.  For the sleeves I used a lighter weight cotton sateen allowed for a nice drape and subtle luminescence that could move and flutter in the slightest breeze. The undergarment, made to be exposed intentionally, was made of burlap and hangs behind the placket and from under the sleeves. The edges of the frock and undergarments were tattered and distressed – the burlap was very susceptible to the scarifying technique used for the twine. A stiff metal wire brush, especially one that was recently used to clean the soot off a grill, is perfect for distressing fabric and wooden frame. A mixture of gray colored spray paints administered strategically on the black suit created a mottled and worn look. A few drops of black India ink in a spray bottle filled with rubbing alcohol was used on the burlap to create a rotting mildewed look. A few strokes of golden-amber stain smeared with a disposable foam brush added depth to the hanging and tattered burlap. Methodically placed tattered holes in the dark frock exposed the lighter colored burlap undergarment to maximize the motely appearance and provide the aged, exposed to years of harsh elements, look.

irvingThe head of Mr. Irving was made out of a carvable foam pumpkin. The facial expression was made to look like a traditional and scary jack-o-lantern that appears to be demonically laughing. An acute and sharp downward angle to the triangle eyes affords ferocity of expression. I painted the inside black and airbrushed around the tops of the eyes, nose and mouth to give the illusion that he was charred and soot-covered from intense flames projecting out from within. Much work was done in detail painting the stem, crevices and flat areas of the foam pumpkin to provide depth, coloring, age and stress. A finish coat of high-gloss polyurethane not only helps repel rain and weather, but it gives the appearance that pumpkin is real with an evening dew. A wooden dowel rod through the bottom could easily be inserted into the hole on the top of the vertical 2x4. Faux grass/straw was bound and tufted around the neck to provide transitional girth from the spine to the head as well as to provide bulk for the collar to close with the hook-n-eye.

Illuminated with an amber light source from below, creates ominously long shadows that are accentuated by his simple yet unique characteristics. The eerie and omniscient sounds of an Aeolian harp sound track playing nearby, complete the sagacious austereness of Mr. Irving’s presence.  Since his creation, Mr. Irving has greeted over 650,000 guests to Greenfield Village and after many years of hard and dedicated service, he needed a new head.  Today, a new Mr. Irving pumpkin head was created to enthrall and enchant.

If scarecrows had official numbers to retire, I’m sure Mr. Irving’s would qualify, but he has many more years of work ahead of him.

Brian James Egen is Executive Producer at The Henry Ford.

making, holidays, Hallowe'en in Greenfield Village, Halloween, Greenfield Village, events, by Brian James Egen, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford

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