Revisiting the Klondike Big Inch

Each year during the Riverside Arts Festival, the ODD Gallery sponsors a paired set of exhibitions called The Natural and the Manufactured, each dealing with some way in which people and their plans have had an impact on the environment around them.

This year one of those exhibits, the one indoors at the gallery itself, deals in a very thorough and amusing way with a subject I touched on here in February, 2014.

Kevin Murphy’s exhibit is called One Square Inch More or Less, and is based on the mid-1950s promotion by the Quaker Oats Company.

As Murphy notes in his introduction, “in 1955 (the company) launched the Klondike Big Inch Land Co. promotion. Accompanying boxes of puffed cereal, consumers received elaborate and apparently official deeds to one square inch of land subdivided from a plot outside of Dawson City.”

The scheme was associated with a radio show originally called Challenge of the Yukon, which was later re-titled to its better known name, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon.

It was under that title that the sponsor purchased 19.11 acres of land in the territory and divided it into 21 million one-inch square pieces of the Yukon. “Get a real deed to one square inch of land in the Yukon gold rush country” and, “You’ll actually own one square inch of Yukon land.” That’s how the advertising ran in 93 American newspapers in January 1955.

You sent off a box top from Quaker Puffed Wheat, Quaker Puffed Rice or Muffets Shredded Wheat, and they sent you in return a 5 by 8 inch deed to one square inch of land in the Klondike. The deed was larger than the land, but there were 21 million of them.

There were many issues. The practice was illegal in at least one state, and while the lucky owners felt they had title to a tiny gold mine, the deeds apparently did not transfer any mineral rights to the new owners.

Unpaid taxes – a common theme in the Klondike – caused the land to revert to the Canadian government in 1965 and the Great Klondike Big Inch Land Company dissolved in 1966.

If you want to see where all this action took place, go play a round of golf on the Dawson City Golf Course, which is where the land was located.

Murphy has collected some of these deeds (they sell them on eBay and other places as memorabilia) and has identified the exact locations of some of the land parcels.

Using the physical deeds themselves, he has created tiny paper sculptures, using them to build tiny homesteads, claims and other buildings and objects that might be associated with a tiny mine.

He has placed these creations on their respective lots and photographed them there, creating a series of amusing and evocative landscapes.

The exhibit notes suggest that “the scale of the resulting landscapes is confused, allowing the sculptures to become models for larger potential sites. “The exhibited project is a complementary paradox: the imagined space of the deed finally made real by its location and documentation, and the real space of the land made imaginarytransformed into model, picture, and landscape.”

The tiny sculptures are displayed in a pile near the entrance to the gallery. The pictures are a treat. 

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