LINCOLN — There are no listless men in bread lines.
No drought-stricken farmers or foreclosure sales.
Rather, Nebraska's post office murals from the Great Depression of the 1930s provided a sense of hopefulness in depicting familiar scenes of history, community and life on the land during a time of dark national despair — even if the locals grumbled a bit.
Bob Puschendorf delivers that message in “Nebraska Post Office Murals: Born of the Depression, Fostered by the New Deal,” a new book published by the Nebraska State Historical Society.
“What better place than the local post office, where people gathered and did business, to get art to people, especially those in smaller towns, who didn't have a lot of exposure to art,” Puschendorf said.
Twelve new Nebraska post offices received murals commissioned between 1937 and 1941 under a U.S. Treasury Department program to bring art to the people, promote American values and provide an outlet for the creative spirit of artists. The Nebraska murals were among 1,100 in post offices across the nation.
Each of the Nebraska murals remains in its original setting; 11 in post offices and one in what now is the educational service unit in Valentine. They generally are 12 feet long and 4 feet high and hang above the door to the postmaster's office.
Puschendorf, the deputy state historic preservation officer, said the murals program was not a make-work project.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal launched the construction of thousands of federal buildings and post offices. Only new post offices were eligible to receive murals or other artwork. Each building's construction budget included a reserve to cover cost overruns. If the reserve was not needed for construction, about 1 percent was set aside for a mural.
Artists competed for commissions on merit. Most were paid $500 to $700, or about $15 a square foot.
“It was less than the going rate for artists, but a lot of them were out of work,” Puschendorf said. “They needed the money and gladly accepted the work at that rate.”
Puschendorf said modern historians could criticize the murals but they reflected the way most people perceived history at the time.
For example, the mural at Hebron depicts a herd of bison crossing railroad tracks and stopping a train. The scene never happened near Hebron because bison were gone from the landscape before the railroad reached the area, Puschendorf said.
In Red Cloud, the mural shows longhorn cattle loaded into a railroad cattle car. Red Cloud was not a shipping center for Texas cattle.
Red Cloud's postmaster and townspeople were disappointed in the mural. They wanted the town's namesake — Oglala Sioux chief Red Cloud — in their painting. The artist objected. Federal officials, however, found $500 in the building's construction fund to pay for two additional panels to hang above the postal counter “to keep everyone happy,” Puschendorf said.
One of two new panels shows Red Cloud on horseback and other American Indians in a sad depiction of being dispossessed by settlers.
Critics popped up before the paint dried in some towns.
A local newspaper, the Republican, panned Valentine's mural. It said flaws included depicting the depot on the wrong side of the tracks, the shape of a covered wagon's canvas top and a locomotive of the wrong vintage.
“This paper had expected to reproduce a picture of the painting but under the circumstances has decided to refrain from irritating its readers to that extent,” the newspaper wrote.
The Cherry County News jumped aboard: “We understand the cost of this painting is probably $700 and are glad the investment is not ours.”
The World-Herald's art reviewer supported artist Kady Faulkner's work in Valentine. Faulkner, a University of Nebraska art instructor, was the only Nebraska artist to win a commission for a post office in her home state.
Federal officials also critiqued artists' sketches and drafts. Artist Jenne Magafan was told to correct the size and legs of the rear quarter of cattle in her mural for Albion.
The last mural completed was in Pawnee City. The artist was authorized to proceed with a full-size draft the day before the attack on Pearl Harbor thrust America into World War II.
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