The Post Office Mural

Chapter 16

All the News from Walnut Shade, KS
September 8, 2011

There was a big crowd on hand for the Labor Day parade in Willow Springs.  Mayor Wright reported that there were four floats and seven classic cars, as well as the marching band from Washburn University.  Ironically, the United Transportation Union’s entry in the parade broke down on the way from Topeka and they had to have it towed back to their hall.

Stephanie Barnett was back in town from college for the Labor Day weekend.  Unlike her mother, she accepted her father’s invitation to go to the KU football game with him.  Jeff and Eddy are going to Columbia in a couple of weeks to visit Stephanie and see Missouri play Western Illinois.

Anna Brady, Ilene Wick, and Sheila Miller played Mahjong on Tuesday with Ruth Stanford.   Sheila is getting to be the regular stand-in for one of the absent “girls,” as Ruth calls them.

Lori Mendenhall’s sister was in town on Tuesday (which was why she couldn’t play Mahjong) and they spent the day cleaning out Lori’s garden shed in preparation for her garage sale on Saturday.

Speaking of garage sales, Glenda Singleton found a first edition copy of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and a copy of East of Eden, signed by John Steinbeck, at a garage sale in Marysville.

Cornelius Chase, an art historian and conservator from the University of Delaware, was in town last week to evaluate the mural in the post office.  Some restoration is needed and if the post office closes next year, as seems likely, the Town Council has committed to turning the building into a new museum show-casing Walnut Shade’s connection to the pioneer trails, Pony Express and other historical events.

Susan Hall reports that the Prairie View Festival is set to begin next weekend.  The Town Council met on Tuesday and gave formal approval for closing Main Street between 2nd and 4th Streets and for Harris Park to be reserved for the Festival. There will be an encampment at the Vermillion Creek Crossing with re-enactors demonstrating skills that the pioneers would have used on their trek across the country; a Prairie Band Potawatomi Pow Wow; food booths on Main Street; music in Harris Park; discussions of historical events at the library; an antique auction at the elementary school auditorium; and, tours of historic houses and buildings in the community.  It will be a busy weekend in Walnut Shade.

Sally Oswald, chair of the Main Street/PRIDE committee is seeking suggestions for a new advertising slogan for Walnut Shade.  The old motto, “Walnut Shade is Cool,” was adopted in 1962 and Sally and the committee think it’s time for a change.

Sherri Brown called to say that the delivery of Destiny of the Republic has been delayed.  The dealer she usually buys from misplaced her order and he won’t get the books from the publisher until the end of the month.

Carl and Jessica Cunningham played bingo at the VFW in Marysville Saturday night.  Jessica’s sister Kris and brother-in-law Sid had planned to join them, but Kris decided to stay home and watch the season premier of “Cops.”

Pastor Paul and Patsy had visitors from Chicago over Labor Day.  Patsy’s great aunt, Virginia O’Halloran and her husband, Pat, stopped on their way to Scottsdale, Arizona, where they will be moving in November.  Patsy says that her aunt can’t take the Chicago winters anymore and Pat wants to be able to play golf year ‘round.

Well, even though I don’t play golf, I’ll admit I occasionally think about living some place that I could not do it year ‘round.  But, short of that…

Until next week, I remain
Your Faithful Correspondent

Most rural communities like Walnut Shade revolve around a few institutions:  churches, the local school, social clubs, the “down home” restaurant, and the post office.  In some ways, the post office may be the most important because it’s the place you see your neighbors every day, exchange news and gossip, and connect to the outside world.

When the rumor spread that the post office was on the list to be closed next year, you could almost hear the collective gasp.  Of course, Lois Thompson, the manager of the local branch could “neither confirm or deny” the talk around town, but it was pretty clear from the look on her face what the truth likely is.  Lois has been at the post office since 1970 when she took over from Art Sears, the previous postmaster, so she’s been through downsizing before, but this seems to be more serious.

“We have 106 boxes, so I see just about everyone in town nearly every day.  This is the stop on the way to Shirley’s for a dozen of the regulars over there and you know how busy it gets at five o’clock when people stop on their way home from work.”

Lois said that there was a moratorium on closing rural post offices until sometime next spring because so many members of Congress had heard from their constituents about the devastating impact it would have on small towns across the country if their facility closed.

“We’ve been losing money for the last few years because of email and the private delivery companies, but there are some services that people just shouldn’t lose, no matter what the cost.  When the high school closed in 1967, we were sure that Walnut Shade was going to die, but we survived.  I guess we’ll survive this, but it will be hard.”  Lois is one of those glass half-full types who is slightly more optimistic than pessimistic.

If there is any good news in this it is that at least the building will be saved if the mail service is curtailed there.  When Art Sears retired in 1970, the newly reorganized United States Postal Service decided that it owned too many aging buildings around the country that needed substantial repairs.  Many of these were offered for sale and the Town Council at the time decided to purchase Walnut Shade’s post office and lease it back to USPS.  The impetus for the purchase came from Miss Cecilia Davenport, Francis Sappington (Mark’s father) George Bradford (father of Hazel and Millie), and Art Sears.  Francis was the unofficial town historian and George was on the Town Council.  Miss Cecilia was… well, she was Miss Cecilia, the one person in town that everyone listened to and respected, and Art had been the postmaster in Walnut Shade since 1935.  When this group said that the building should be purchased, it was purchased.

Most people in town have walked into the post office every day and if they’ve noticed the mural on the back wall surrounding the Postmaster’s office, they probably have thought little of it.  Francis Sappington, however, knew just what an important piece of art it was.  “Crossing the Vermillion” was painted by Birger Sandzen in 1938, when he worked for the Section of Fine Arts of the Treasury Department.  Often thought of incorrectly as a part of the WPA program from the Depression years, the Section, in fact, hired artists on commission to decorate government buildings across the country.  The “new” post office in Walnut Shade was built in 1936 and the mural was an important part of the interior design.  The mural depicts a group of pioneers on the Oregon Trail fording Vermillion Creek just outside of town.  Sandzen skillfully showed the exhilaration, danger and struggle involved in the task on the faces of the men, women and animals in the painting.

Sandzen did three other post office murals, in Lindsborg, Belleville, and Halstead.  The Postal Service says that of the 1400 murals commissioned in the ‘30s and ‘40s by the arts program there are still about 1200 surviving.  When the Town Council bought the post office building, it did not buy the mural, but has a contract with the USPS that says that the mural will stay in the building as long as it stands.  I had a chance to talk to Dr. Chase while he was in town examining the mural.  He said that it’s in remarkably good shape, needing only a thorough cleaning and small repair to the slight water damage in upper right corner (the roof had a small leak as a result of the wind damage when the tornado skipped across town in 1995).  He said that he will be recommending that the Postal Service contract with an art conservation firm in Chicago to do the work, which will probably start sometime in the spring.  We are all hoping that the restoration work is done to “the mural in the post office,” not to “the mural in the museum.”

It seems that no sooner has one event concluded in Walnut Shade, or someplace close by in the county, than another one is either beginning or getting close to beginning.  We just finished with the County Fair and the Labor Day parade and now we are getting ready for the Prairie View Festival.  While it is now officially a project of the Main Street/PRIDE committee, it seems that there isn’t a person in town who isn’t involved.  The Festival was started by the seniors at the high school in 1955 as a way of learning (and teaching) about the role that Walnut Shade played in the exploration and settlement of the west and it has grown to a three-day event that attracts over 2500 visitors each year.

The Vermillion Creek Crossing re-enactment and encampment is always exciting, especially in years when there has been normal or above-normal rains.  This year, most of us could walk across the Creek without getting our feet wet, so there won’t be any of the mishaps that have taken place in the past.  Three years ago, two wagons were swept down the creek because of the heavy rains that came during the week before the Festival.  Fortunately, the re-enactors were able to unhitch the ox teams before they were lost also.  The wagons were recovered down stream from where they were stuck under the 78th Street bridge, but most of the contents of the wagons ended up in the Kansas River.

The historic homes tour should be very interesting this year because it will include not only some of Walnut Shade’s most beautifully restored houses, but because Harry Singleton and Jason Glenn have agreed to open the Convent to give people a sneak peak at the renovations taking place that will result in their bed and breakfast and restaurant.  Tom and Michelle Clemons will have their carriage house open, and Inez Harris will be showing her 1910 American Four Square.  This is the first time on the tour for Inez, who just recently had the entire house painted, inside and out.  Mark Sappington’s 1884 Carpenter Gothic and Bill and Grace Morton’s 1891 Richardsonian Romanesque home will be quite popular again this year.  Judy agreed, reluctantly, to open our house, an Arts and Crafts bungalow built in 1916 for Harvey and Louise Bradford.  For a community the size of Walnut Shade, the variety of house styles is quite remarkable, which makes it a very popular destination for people who love old houses.

True to our sometimes (often?) myopic, Euro-American, ethnocentric view of such things, it wasn’t until three years ago that the Festival planners sat down with representatives of the Tribal Council of the Prairie Band Potawatomi to talk about how to incorporate Native American history and experience into the Festival, since the land upon which Walnut Shade sits was once their land.  The result of those discussions is the now-annual fall Pow Wow on Saturday and educational programs about the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation and other Native American tribes throughout the three days of the event.  I think we all come away with a greater appreciation of the multiple histories of this part of the country and once again, come Sunday evening, we will all be exhausted, but enlightened.

About stclairc

Abstract artist, photographer, writer
This entry was posted in Art, Observations, Painting, Small Town Life. Bookmark the permalink.

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