There is history painted on the walls of a dozen small town Nebraska post offices; murals that tell stories of our past. It is part of an innovative Depression era government program.
The post office in Auburn, Neb. is a brick building in the center of town. It is simple, functional, and nondescript, the type of structure you would expect the federal government to build in the 1930s. The surprise comes inside. In the lobby, near the ceiling, is a large mural that depicts how wheat used to be harvested in Nemaha County, with pitchforks, a threshing machine and lots of manual labor.
NEBRASKA'S POST OFFICE MURALS
- Albion – “Winter in Nebraska” by Jenne Magafan
- Auburn – “Threshing” by Ethel Magafan
- Crawford – “The Crossing” by G. Glenn Newell
- Geneva – “Building a Sod House” by Edward Chavez
- Hebron – “Stampeding Buffaloes Stopping a Train” by Eldora Lorenzini
- Minden – “Military Post on the Overland Trail” by William E.L. Bunn
- Ogallala – “Long Horns” by Frank Mechau
- O’Neill – “Baling Hay in Holt County in the Early Days” by Eugene Trentham
- Pawnee City – “The Auction” by Kenneth Evett
- Red Cloud – “Loading Cattle, Moving Westward, and Stockade Builders” by Archie Musick
- Schuyler – “Wild Horses by Moonlight" by Philip von Saltza
- Valentine – “End of the Line” by Kady Faulkner (note: the building containing this mural is no longer a post office; it is an Educational Service Unit office)
“I think it’s very impressive and it’s beautiful,” said Stephanie Hackett, Auburn’s postmaster. “I like the fact that it depicted an era that was gone by. The artist actually did research on farming practices, and threshing was no longer happening at the time she did the painting. So she did quite a bit of research, then depicted it beautifully.”
A picture of this mural is on the cover of a new book by Bob Puschendorf, “Nebraska’s Post Office Murals: Born of the Depression, Fostered by the New Deal.”
“I was always fascinated with the period of the Depression,” said Puschendorf, an associate director at the Nebraska State Historical Society. “My parents were products of the Depression, as were my grandparents.”
From this fascination came Puschendorf’s research on the 12 murals that were painted for Nebraska post offices in the 1930s, some of the 1,100 created throughout the United States. This was part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal initiative to address the Great Depression, with $3 million allocated for murals in new post office buildings. The goal was to provide relief for the unemployed, but also bring fine arts to the people at a time when a federal government report found that, “for an overwhelming majority of the American people, the fine arts of painting and sculpture do not exist.” The Treasury Department, which was responsible for construction of federal government buildings, was in charge of the mural program.
“The Treasury Department decided that post offices were a unique location to display art in a permanent sense to people in communities,” Puschendorf said.
Artists were selected not by need, but through competition. Proposals, submitted as line drawings, had to be American in style, and non-political.
“The correspondence from the Treasury Department often used the phrase ‘simple and vital design,’” Puschendorf added. “They used social realism, which was a style of art that was understandable to the public. They kept away from the abstract type of work.”
Through several stages of approval, the Treasury Department kept a close reign on the mural projects.
“The process of going through all of the stages was called by one art historian, ‘a correspondence course in how to paint,’” Puschendorf said. “Sometimes the artists were very well-accepted and received very few comments about their work, but most were criticized throughout the process, even down to the anatomy of one of the male bison in one of the paintings.”
For all this work, artists received between $600 and $800. Getting paid on time wasn’t a guarantee, especially toward the end of the project when the onset of World War II was drawing attention and resources. That meant tough times for artists like Kenneth Evett, painter of a mural that now adorns the Pawnee City, Neb. post office.
“He couldn’t buy coal or food,” Puschendorf said. “He was forced to ask friends and neighbors for assistance and he said, ‘It gets disappointing going to the mailbox every day and not finding my check.’”
Evett did finish the Pawnee City mural, which is a depiction of a livestock auction.
“It’s the little kids that look at it probably more than the adults do,” said Karla Sextro, Pawnee City’s postmaster. “While mom’s waiting in line they’re looking at the animals and stuff on the wall.”
Sextro said the mural is popular with people in Pawnee City. But it also has tourist appeal, attracting some visitors who are traveling the country to see as many of the post office murals as possible.
“I’ve been surprised at how many come in from around the different parts of Nebraska, different states even that come in and look at the mural,” Sextro added. “The benefit for me is I get to meet the people who come in to see the mural.”
Puschendorf said the benefit for the country was a public art initiative ahead of its time. He said the murals, while sometimes historically inaccurate or politically incorrect, were still successful and well accepted by art historians.
“They were intended to bring art to the people,” Puschendorf said. “They are fine pieces of work in my opinion.”