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Walls of history.

When the antiquated lumber mill in Chemainus, British Columbia, shut down in 1983, its last whistle sounded like the death knell to residents who had watched the one-industry town on Vancouver Island slide slowly into decrepitude. That summer, though, the last of a dozen murals depicting the area's colorful past appeared on the side of a building downtown, completing the initial stage of a project that had begun when the closure was first rumored. By the time a new state-of-the-art mill opened almost two years later, Chemainus already had a promising new future based on mural art.

Today, Chemainus thrives. Willow Street, where most shops and restaurants cluster, bustles with activity every day in summer and on weekends the rest of the year.

"In 1981, if you saw a stranger in Chemainus, you knew he was lost," says entrepreneur Karl Schutz, the project's originator. "Now we get over 400.000 visitors a year." They come from around the world to follow a path of yellow footprints to 30 murals, with new ones added each year.

Some of those visitors never leave. "This was a pretty crummy mill town. Now it's a showplace," says Neil Burn, a stained-glass artist who was drawn to Chemainus by its vitality and growing artistic community. His gallery is one of more than a hundred new businesses that have located here since the mural project took off.

The project has reaped remarkable results: awards have been won, government grants received, a murals book published, a new museum completed, and a movie (The Little Town That Did!) produced. This summer, construction begins on a new dinner theater where the town's history will be dramatized.

The drawbacks? Local residents have been heard to complain they can't get a parking space in front of the post office anymore.

Chemainus is a town that art built," Gene Stevens says admiringly. Inspired by a visit to Chemainus, the former mayor of Lompoc, California, spearheaded a mural project in his own town in 1988.

"The murals play an amazing role in bringing back a feeling of community and spirit," Stevens claims. He believes the mural project in Lompoc's old downtown will draw people back to the district, which lost out to minimalls and shopping centers.

It may already be happening. "Lots of people come by and watch. They are fascinated with the mural," said artist Shirley Wallace, as she battled rain last April to reincarnate one of Lompoc's first public schools on the side of a bank. A group of students painted in front of the school includes real faces from an 1884 photograph; current residents are thrilled when they recognize an ancestor.

Contemporary students learn lessons in local history while standing in front of the project's first mural, which portrays the development of the flower seed industry. (Considered the world's flower seed capital, Lompoc is surrounded by vast fields of zinnias, marigolds, petunias, and other flowers.) A 140-foot-long mural represents the town's diatomaceous mining industry; another commemorates the town's origin as a temperance colony.

In Toppenish, Washington, the change wrought by murals has been nothing less than magical. "Our town had gone to hell," admits Roger McCarthy, president of the Toppenish Mural Society. "The most active businesses downtown were the taverns." Now, "You have a beautiful town" is a frequent comment in the guest log that sits next to a prestigious state tourism award in the society's office.

Across the street in Old Timers' Plaza, When Hops Were Picked by Hand shows local Native Americans harvesting hops in the late 1800s, and a bevy of tepees pitched in the adjoining field. The new plaza, filled with flowers, park benches, and old-fashioned street lamps, has become a magnet for guests (some from as far away as Japan and Yugoslavia) passing through town on tours of the Yakima Valley wine country.

Mural fever seems to have spread throughout the town. Prompted by the face-lift that the murals have given the once-seedy downtown, residents are spiffing up their houses and gardens, as well as donating time and money to the project. (A list of memorial donations to the mural society filled a full page in a recent issue of its newsletter.) Businesses, too, are catching the mural bug; they're donating wall space for murals and land for parks. When a McDonald's recently opened on the outskirts of Toppenish, it commissioned a mural for the interior of the restaurant.

One key to the power of murals is the sheer size of their audience. "My conservative estimate is that 2 million people see a mural in its lifetime," says mural artist Dan Sawatzky, a Chemainus resident who has done more than 40 murals around the world, including four in Chemainus and one in Lompoc.

All those onlookers will find it hard to forget the history they learn from the giant storybook images. They'll remember that a donkey is a mechanical creature in Chemainus logging terms, a hop is not a dance but something picked from a vine in the Yakima Valley, and that in Lompoc, "temperate" once described more than the town's mild weather.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:historical murals in small western towns
Author:MacPherson, Jena
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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