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Murals Celebrate An American Heritage

Date Posted: June 10, 1999

Written by Barb Selyem Photos by Bruce Selyem

One of the 20th century’s most visible symbols of our North American agricultural heritage is the country grain elevator.

The disappearance of this structure, an architecture unique to North America, has inspired many artists. Three country elevators, painted with murals of their local histories, continue to contribute to their communities.

Good Thunder, MN The Milwaukee Wisconsin Railroad discontinued service to Good Thunder, MN, in 1978. For many rural communities, the loss of the railroad spells the demise of the town. Recognizing this possibility, community leaders formed the Good Thunder Development Corp.

One of its most ambitious endeavors was to paint a mural to commemorate the area’s history on the 75-foot, century-old Good Thunder Feed & Grain Elevator. Funded by a grant and donations including 1,100 gal. of paint, Ta-Coumba Aiken, a noted St. Paul, MN, muralist, began work in 1987 on this $14,000 project.

Most of the scenes were taken from historic photos supplied by local residents as well as the state and county historical societies. The headhouse, with its paintings of the town and the children with the computer, illustrates a vision of the community’s past and future. The rest of the artist’s “family photo album” features people and events that helped to write the town history:

• John G. Graham, Good Thunder’s first postmaster, and his wife, Loretta.

• The Graham House, the town’s first hotel.

• Robbert Stratton, a local resident killed in World War II, for which the local American Legion post is named.

• A John Deere tractor to document a late-1970s tractorcade, part of a nationwide protest of farm prices.

• Richard Houk, the original surveyor of the town and founder of the elevator.

• Other views depicting the agricultural base of the community and the abundance of wildlife in the area.

Annandale, MN In honor of its centennial in 1988, The Annandale, MN, tourism committee was searching for ideas and events to perpetuate its celebration. Gleaning the concept from the Good Thunder painting, they formed The Elevator Mural Project Committee, which immediately commenced work.

Central Sota Cooperative, owner of the town’s 1919 elevator, provided its support and encouragement. In July 1988, after viewing Ta-Coumba Aiken’s work in Good Thunder, the committee commissioned him to begin phase one, depicting the town’s first 100 years. Aiken created his collage of painted histories. The headhouse includes cameos of early prominent Annandale figures. Other views show farming scenes, the Union Comet Band, and an unnamed girl in front of the Cofield & McDonald Elevator, which had burned down in 1919.

Phase 2 was designed and painted by Marilyn Lindstrom, a Minneapolis artist, between July and September 1989. This phase expresses the diversified resources of the area including wildlife, lakes and recreation, flora, farming, triathlon runners, a bicyclist, a train, and Fourth of July festivities.

Greybull, WY Greybull Elevator and Feed Store in Greybull, WY, is a very unusual tourist attraction. When Dave and Jeanne VanGelder bought Dave’s dad’s feed business in 1990, they decided to eliminate a decaying Purina feed sign from the headhouse of one of the two elevators. They contacted Karyne Dunbar, an area art teacher who had experience painting murals in homes and public buildings, and asked her to sketch some suggestions. Dunbar worked inside the Greybull elevator on 64 2-foot-x-6-foot panels of corrugated metal, which eventually would be assembled and attached to the side of the 1919 elevator. A fellow artist, Earl Miller, provided the technical skills necessary to paint lines and curves on the inch-deep folds of the metal.

During the entire project, blowing barley dust posed a continuous hazard to fresh paint. So, for the second mural of the Indian that was to be installed on the 1940s vintage elevator, Karyne decided to work at home, thus eliminating the dusting problem. And learning from graffiti artists she visited on a vacation to the Louvre in Paris, she used a lot more spray paint.

Greybull Elevator and Feed continues to operate as a successful retail farm and ranch store and to supply malting barley to Anheuser Busch Co.

Barbara Krupp Selyem is a director of the Country Grain Elevator Historical Society. For more information, contact the society at 406-388-9282; www.gomontana.com/grainelevator.

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