In Arkansas and Missouri, the name is ubiquitous. Even the most casual visitor tends to notice, and occasionally asks, “Who is this ‘Benton’ character whose name keeps cropping up?” In fact, it isn’t “this Benton” but “these Bentons” for whom the states’ schools, counties, and towns are named.
The first Thomas Hart Benton (1782-1858) served five terms as senator from Missouri. A strong advocate for westward expansion, he petitioned Congress to fund a survey of the road to Santa Fe. The petition granted, Commissioners George Sibley, Benjamin Reeves, and Thomas Mather of Illinois took charge of the survey, measuring and negotiating their way across Kansas and New Mexico from 1825-1827.
Senator Benton also was the great-great-uncle of Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), the painter whose own father, Maecenus Eason Benton, served in Congress from 1897-1905.
Given the history, it’s fitting that the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas should number among its holdings several paintings by the younger Benton. During a 2013 visit to the museum, I discovered the painting shown above. Tobacco Sorters is an unexpectedly touching piece, and a fine example of Benton’s work.
During the same visit, I noticed another painting titled After the Flood, done in a style which closely resembled Benton’s. The gallery label identified it as the work of Joseph Paul Vorst, a student and friend of Benton’s who once shared a studio with him. It also noted that Vorst had been commissioned to create a mural for the Paris, Arkansas post office after winning a 1939 competition in which forty-eight artists were selected to provide murals for each of the forty-eight states.
Vorst’s mural, a highly detailed rendering of the cattle, coal, and cotton industries around Paris titled Rural Arkansas, was followed by murals for Missouri post offices in Bethany and Vandalia. Never having seen a post office mural, I was intrigued by the concept, and curious whether they might still be around. That the murals exist at all is due to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, which included a bit of bureaucracy known as the Section of Fine Arts. Responsible for decorating public buildings, it commissioned murals for post offices built in the 1930s and 1940s, setting aside one per cent of their budgets for artistic “embellishments.”
Before the program ended, federally-funded murals had been installed in nearly 1,400 post offices across the United States. Created in the artists’ studios, they were personally installed by the artists, or by workers whom they supervised.
After discovering that nineteen of the original twenty-one Arkansas murals remained extant, I added a post office tour to my itinerary last fall. An online list of murals, combined with a nice, fresh Rand-McNally Road Atlas and a yellow highlighter, outlined the circuit for a project that I assumed would be straightforward. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective), I’d chosen the wrong list.
I began my tour in Morrilton, where I stopped at a hardware store to ask directions. Only blocks away, the post office was surprisingly new, with huge glass windows, an even larger parking lot, and gleaming tiled floors. Obviously, it wasn’t the place where Richard Sargent’s mural originally had been installed, but I assumed the mural had been moved into the new building.
As I wandered past rows of postal boxes, stamp-vending machines, and mail drops, I found no evidence of a mural. Since the line at the counter wasn’t long, I decided to ask a postal clerk about the painting’s location.
While the line inched forward, I asked the woman behind me about the mural. She never had seen it, or heard of it, for that matter, but she thought a man in front of us in line might know something, since his father had been Morrilton’s postmaster.
“We had a mural?” he said. “No kidding?” He didn’t remember it, either. “You probably ought to try the library. If it’s still around, they would know. Turn left out of the parking lot, then left again. You’ll see it.”
Just inside the library’s front door, business was slow at the information desk, and the young staff person was eager. “Can I help you?” she asked. I explained what I was looking for, and was rewarded with a blank look. “Never heard of it,” she said, “but let’s try Google.” After a few clicks of the keys, she looked at me. “How do you spell ‘mural’?
Eventually, we discovered the mural had been moved to the Conway County courthouse, and re-installed in a place of honor on the first floor. I found it easily enough, and several people stopped to chat while I was taking photos. After hearing about the complications I’d faced in the process of finding it, an administrative assistant beckoned me into her office.
“Here,” she said. “This will help. It has a list of the murals, with their current locations. Many have been moved, and most websites haven’t caught up with them yet.” In the coming days, the list would be invaluable.
The Morrilton mural itself was painted by Richard Sargent, a native of Moline, Illinois whose career spanned architecture and commercial art. Its original title,Thirsting Men, was changed to Men at Rest. Traditional methods of haying nearly have disappeared, but the sense of satisfaction is clear, and the obvious bond between the dog and his people is a delightful addition to the scene.
Another relocated mural can be found at the Saline County Courthouse in Benton, Arkansas. Julius Woeltz, a native of San Antonio, Texas who studied at the Art Institute of Chicago before becoming head of the Art Department at Sul Ross State Teachers College in Alpine, Texas, painted Bauxite Mining as well as a pair of murals for the Elgin and Amarillo post offices.
From 1899 to the 1970s, Benton led the country in bauxite production. In Woeltz’s mural, the operations of an open-pit mine are detailed: inserting dynamite, loading raw ore into carts for delivery to the plant, and pausing for a bit of refreshment. The southwestern colors of the hills in the background are no mistake; the deep reds, grays, and yellowish-whites are typical of the ore.
Ludwig Mactarian, a ten-year-old Armenian who immigrated to the United States with his parents in 1920, was raised in New York. After studies at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League, he collaborated with George Picken on murals for the Hudson Falls, New York post office, as well as working with Reginald Marsh at the New York Custom House.
In Dardanelle, Arkansas, he choose to focus on cotton, but financial difficulties made it impossible for him to travel to the area. Despite the limitations, he used images from the New York Public Library, and information gleaned from correspondence with Dardanelle’s postmaster, to create a detailed, pleasing mural.
And, as so often happened, the very act of photographing the mural resulted in some amusing exchanges. In Dardanelle, a group of chattering women stopped long enough to ask, “What are you taking a picture of this old place for?” When I pointed out the mural, there was silence. “My, my,” one finally said. “I’ve been coming here for years, and I don’t believe I’ve ever noticed that.”
No collection of Arkansas murals would be complete without an acknowledgement of its mountains, rivers, and wildlife. In DeQueen, a town I passed through several times, the post office is home to one of my favorite murals: Henry Simon’s Wildlife Conservation in Arkansas.
Born in Plock, Poland, Simon immigrated to the United States in 1905. After studies in fresco painting with Edward Millman at the Art Institute of Chicago, he taught fresco painting at Hull House in Chicago.
During my own time in Arkansas, I came across quail, wild turkey, squirrels, raccoons, a blue heron, a possum, and some deer. The only creatures included in the mural I didn’t see were the egret, the otter, and the fish, but I don’t doubt they were around: particularly, the fish.
Thinking about the men and women I met who’d never noticed their historic murals, I can’t be too judgmental, or too amused. It finally occurred to me that Texas surely received more than a few of those 1,400 murals, and when I looked at the full list, I was surprised to find one only twenty miles up the road.
Installed in the old Goose Creek post office, Barse Miller’s fresco titled Texas has been moved to the Baytown Historical Museum. Its restoration in 2011, at a cost of $14,000, surely was publicized, but I don’t remember hearing a thing about it.
Of course I’ll be visiting, just as I’ll be checking that list to see what other national treasures might be hidden away in my state’s post offices: all of them much closer to home than Benton, Arkansas.