Laura Dean Bennett
If you find yourself standing at the clerk’s window at the Marlinton Post Office, cast your eye upward and to the left, and you will see a beautiful mural. It graces the wall above the door to the office of the “Post Master.” It’s title is “Past Visions the Future.”
The oil painting captures an imagined moment in time, depicting Pocahontas County farmer Fred Sharp pausing with his ox team – Pat and Star – to survey the burgeoning town of Marlinton from a vantage point on Price Hill.
The mural was painted in 1939 by Edwin Dorsey Doniphan, and it includes a pointed reference to the county’s budding industrialization, as represented by the tannery.
And as reminiscent of life in Pocahontas County, there is a glaring error.
Doniphan placed the tannery in the wrong end of town, but the mural is so evocative, it’s difficult to hold the one, if rather major mistake, against it.
While you’re in the post office, look around the corner to the right and you will find a second mural – originally an oil on canvas – titled “Mill Point.” This was also painted by Doniphan.
In an imaginary 19th century scene, a horse and rider ponying another horse pass the old McNeel grist mill on what is now Route 219 at Mill Point, 14 miles south of Marlinton, in Pocahontas County.
This famous mill – thought to have been built in 1868 and to be one of the oldest of its kind in West Virginia. It was built on Stamping Creek, which flows into the Greenbrier River.
The mill ground corn, wheat and buckwheat up until 1947, and has earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places.
Both paintings seem to evoke a look to the future, while celebrating our past.
Doniphan was an artist living in Washington D.C. when he was commissioned by the federal government to do these paintings.
He was one of many artists commissioned to create hundreds of original paintings, sculptures, murals and wood carvings for post offices and federal buildings across the country during the Depression in the 1930s.
They were commissioned under the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture (later known as The Section of Fine Arts), in affiliation with President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) as part of his New Deal programs.
The worthy remit of the WPA was to give everyone involved in constructing federal buildings – workers to artists – a job at a time when the Depression was ravaging our nation.
We have the New Deal to thank for not only the art inside the building, but our post office building itself.
FDR’s New Deal and Works Progress Administration Projects in the 1930s and 40s included the construction of 16 post offices throughout West Virginia.
In addition to the buildings themselves, the program also funded the art which can still be seen in the lobbies of these buildings.
Although authorized by the WPA, the post office murals were executed by artists working for the Section of Fine Arts, which established in 1934.
It was administered by the Procurement Division of the Treasury Department.
That agency was led by Edward Bruce, who was a lawyer, businessman and, perhaps, not coincidentally, also an artist.
Its mission was to hire artists and select art to decorate public buildings, thus making fine art accessible to everyone.
The United States Forest Service Building in Elkins, built between 1936 and 1938, was another WPA project.
The Neo-Classical Revival building is typical of public buildings from that era and is also home to two New Deal murals.
Titled “Forest Service” and “Mining Village,” they were executed in tempera paint in 1939 by Stevan Dohanos.
In addition to Marlinton and Elkins, WPA paintings, sculptures, wood carvings and murals in post offices and federal buildings may be found in Fayetteville, Holidays Cove, Kenova, Lewisburg, Logan, Mannington, Mount Hope, Oak Hill, Ripley, Saint Albans, Saint Marys, Salem, Spencer, Webster Springs and Weirton.
Nationally, the Section of Fine Arts commissioned more than 1,300 murals and 300 sculptures during its eight years of existence – 1934 to 1942.
Established by guidelines and themes negotiated between the artist, town and the United States Post Office, the art was intended not only to give work to the artists, but to give hope to the populace.
From these works of art, we can glean a sense of our nation’s character as it struggled to pull itself out of the depths of the Depression.
The murals at the Marlinton Post Office are worth a trip there, just to admire their beauty and the history behind their creation.