Oregon’s Black Bird statue, a roadside attraction with Lewis County roots, will soon have a twin
By Samantha Swindle / The Oregonian
In 1965 – the heyday of kitsch roadside attractions – Lee Hobbs hit on the idea of advertising his army surplus store in Medford.
Although he had no artistic training, Hobbs thought his business, which he called the Black Bird Store, needed a 29-foot black bird statue out front.
Hobbs designed and built the statue himself using rebar, pig wire and fiberglass. Maybe he didn’t know the art, or the anatomy of birds, or the proportions, but he knew how to build, having worked as a fabricator for Boeing in Seattle and as a mechanic.
His creation, which still exists today, is only a bird in the broadest sense. It could more accurately be described as a bodybuilder in a bird costume.
Hobbs’ black bird has bulging biceps, toes that curl skyward, claws (perhaps fingers?) that bend at opposite angles. The arms (yes, the bird has arms) are about twice the length of its legs. Beak agape, he stares at drivers entering the store’s parking lot from the top of two concrete pillars, painted with the store’s initials, BB
“A lot of people, myself included, see the bird and only see shock, excitement and a bit of fear,” said Jonathan Quitt, the current vice president of Black Bird Shopping Center. “We sometimes get strange love letters, if you will, describing the bird.”
The Black Bird store archive contains fan art dedicated to the statue, including a fictional story about the bird coming to life and a framed painting of the bird towering over a Walmart, seemingly poised to assert its dominance in retail trade.
Quitt acknowledges the statue itself is ‘a bit grotesque’ and possibly ‘nightmarish fuel’, but it’s also a Medford icon – which is why when Black Bird opens a second store next year , another statue will be built outside.
“It’s maybe a bit of pride to have something unique in the area where you live,” he said. “Especially these days, when things are just cookie-cutter big box stores, the absurdity and uniqueness of something like this makes people laugh and have a bit of pride.”
The Medford Black Bird was not actually the first bird statue Hobbs built. Black Bird’s statue and store share a history with Yard Birds, a small chain of malls in Washington state.
Yard Birds was founded in 1947 by childhood friends Bill Jones and Rich Gillingham in Centralia, Washington, initially as an army surplus store after World War II, selling everything from tents to toilets. The two friends called their store Yard Birds, using a term for a trainee soldier.
In the days before the big box stores, Yard Birds was a sensation that grew to carry clothes, toys, furniture, live animals and household appliances. The place was known for its wild advertising promotions and its collection of Yard Bird statues – the very first of which was built by Hobbs.
Rob and Karma Hugo produced a comprehensive documentary about the store called “Skinny and Fatty: The Story of Yard Birds”. According to their research, Hobbs had been friends with founder Bill Jones since they worked together at Boeing. Hobbs decided to make a “Yard Bird” statue about 10 feet tall for his friend as a joke.
“They put it in front of the store for a laugh, but it was so popular that Bill had the idea of making a bunch of them and putting them along the roads as an advertisement, which worked really well,” said Rob Hugo.
Hobbs, who ran a gas station on the outskirts of Medford, was encouraged by his friend’s success and opened his own surplus store in Oregon.
“Bill said to Lee, I’m going to send you some trailers of merchandise, put them in your store and see how it goes,” Quitt said.
For his own store, Hobbs built a towering version of the bird statue in the parking lot.
Yard Birds later surpassed the Black Bird in bird statue height, with the construction of a huge 60-foot bird in 1971.
Unfortunately, neither this Yard Birds statue nor the stores exist today. A car driving between the statue’s legs backfired, burning the sculpture in 1976. The last Yard Birds store closed in the 1990s. Chehalis’ former location is now a flea market, where travelers can still see some of the smaller courtyard bird statues and an old bird-shaped helicopter hangar, though all are worse for wear.
But in Medford, Black Bird is still going strong. Over the years it has grown from a 10,000 square foot surplus store to a 50,000 square foot trading bonanza. Black Bird offers a little bit of everything: sportswear, hunting and camping gear, home brewing supplies, Ace brand hardware, clothing and kitchen gadgets.
There are several aisles of nothing but fishing gear.
“It’s just kind of a magical place,” Quitt said. “People come here and walk around with sparkles in their eyes and open mouths. People say they could come here and get lost in the store.
Hobbs died of lung cancer in 1973 at the age of 51, and his sons eventually sold their shares in the company to longtime employee Bill Quitt, who remains chairman of the company today. business. Jonathan Quitt, Bill’s son, left his software engineering career about two years ago to get involved in the family business alongside his father, brother and nephews.
Young Quitt led efforts to preserve the iconic bird statue. In 2021, Black Bird hired Augie’s Fiberglass to repair and repaint the bird, which had endured decades of weathering and the occasional rear of the car. Quitt also wants to bring back some of the statue’s old traditions, recently purchasing a hydraulic lift so employees can start dressing it for various parties. The bird also has a speaker system in its beak that stopped working years ago. Quitt hopes to fix it soon.
“I’m very proud of this family business,” Quitt said. “We’re kind of a local icon. Many people from the valley have been shopping at this store for generations. They used to shop here when they were kids, and now they shop here with their kids, and there’s something very special about it.
There will soon be a second Black Bird towering over Rogue Valley. Last month, Quitt announced plans to open a second store in Phoenix, with groundbreaking this summer and slated to open in 2023. It will be the company’s first expansion since opening in 1965.
Quitt hopes to commission the same company that restored the original Black Bird to build a replica of the Phoenix store statue, likely a bit smaller at around 20 feet. The odd-looking bird, he said, has become an important symbol of the store’s spirit.
“We’re a very eclectic place, and we just want to keep that feeling going as this weird place to go and get lost,” Quitt said. “We’re here to stay, and we want to keep it weird and fun.”
If you go: The Black Bird is located at 1810 W. Main St. in Medford. You can not miss it. For more information, visit theblackbird.com.