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Rock Rapids is 'City of Murals': Iowa community takes cue from city in Washington state

The First Avenue mural welcoming visitors to Rock Rapids deserves a closer look: from the Illinois Central Depot to the blacksmith shop, each letter depicts one of the town's historic sites. It was the mural society's 17th effort, completed by Curt Nelson in 2007. (LAURA GREVAS/DAILY GLOBE)1 / 6
The quaint "Country Vet" mural on the west wall of Corral Lanes offers a picturesque view of Dr. M.L. "Marion" McCormack, a highly respected veterinarian among area farmers in the early 1900s. (LAURA GREVAS/DAILY GLOBE)2 / 6
Murals of Rock Rapids, Iowa. (Laura Grevas/Daily Globe)3 / 6
Murals of Rock Rapids, Iowa. (Laura Grevas/Daily Globe)4 / 6
Murals of Rock Rapids, Iowa. (Laura Grevas/Daily Globe)5 / 6
Murals of Rock Rapids, Iowa. (Laura Grevas/Daily Globe)6 / 6

ROCK RAPIDS, Iowa -- With its sleepy streets and stereotypically low number of stoplights, it would be easy to mistake Rock Rapids for just another small town.

But a tiny group of sideline historians are dedicated to making sure the county seat of Lyon County doesn't fall into that category.

In 2001, Rock Rapids Mural Society president Sandy Wynia took a vacation to Toppenish, Wash., population 9,000. "Where the West still lives in the city of murals and museums."

Toppenish is filled with 70 hand-painted murals of everything from stagecoaches to campfire cowboys to tepee-dwelling Native Americans set against blazing sunsets,and the experience gave Wynia an idea. Perhaps the only thing needed to preserve her town's history was a fresh coat of paint.

"Take a look at the buildings that are located downtown," she said. "Some of them, although they have two or three stories, only use the main floor and the windows on the rest of the building are boarded up. It makes our once-thriving town look neglected and defaced.

"Now, imagine the same windows with scenes of businesses or shops. ... What would you rather see?" Wynia continued.

The answer is evident. The mural society was founded in 2002, and less than a decade later, the self-professed "City of Murals" features 22 (and counting) pieces of art on the windows and walls of its buildings.

"We have walls that are waiting to tell a story -- if we are willing to do the work," Wynia was quoted as saying in the town's community guide. And work she has.

Each mural must first be conceived and funded -- murals range in cost from $300 to $12,000, and are financed mainly by membership dues, private donations, mural sponsorships, grants and fundraisers. Money is also set aside to restore the murals, which are expected to last about 15 years.

"I like doing extra things like this; it's been a fun interest," said the society's secretary, Norma Jansma, whose late husband Tony is featured in a Sepia-toned mural titled "Cattle Buyer."

Next, Wynia and her core group of about eight mural society members photograph the buildings that will serve as canvases for the artwork, documenting the dimensions of each. Artists from across the region are welcome to submit a design and proposed cost for the murals, which are then voted on by society members.

Though most murals are located on First Avenue and Story Street, they tell unique stories from each corner of the town. The first, "Dray Wagon," completed in 2002 by artists Curt Nelson and Carl Reeder, portrays teenager Walter Scott Stewart, who delivered merchandise to local shops and homes via horse and buggy in the early 1900s.

There are others dedicated to important businesses in the town's history, including those for Jansma Cattle Co. and McCormack Transportation. The rest range from the patriotic -- one is dedicated to veterans of foreign wars, another commemorates 9/11 -- to the nostalgic: a panoramic style mural of the historic Benson Skating Rink spans the length of Moe's Garage, and another depicts family fun at Rock River and Island Park. Jansma remembers both from her childhood.

Several murals honor well-known folks in the town's history, including Dr. A.C. Wubbena, lawyer Louis Severson, publisher Paul Smith, country veterinarian Dr. M.L. "Marion" McCormack, and philanthropic couple Frosty and Ella Forster.

JoEllen Sorgdrager, a sign painter by trade, painted Severson, Smith and lawyer Don DeWaay.

"Since I'd done faces before, I was chosen to do that one," Sorgdrager said of the DeWaay mural, which shows the lawyer walking into a bricked-over doorway in what was once his office building.

"I thought it was something I would enjoy doing," she continued. "I had to paint the man and the door and the door frame. And there's stained glass above the door -- I made it look like there was a door there."

She said each mural takes her a couple months of intermittent work to complete.

"Each artist can choose what they want to paint on and what paint to use: some use oil and some use a latex paint; some paint on the building and some paint on a signboard and some paint on Alumacore," Sorgdrager explained. "I like art, so I do many, many art projects."

Those interested in checking out the town's artwork may stop by the Community Affairs Corporation office, adorned with another mural that reads: "Rock Rapids, City of Murals, Information Center."

But what may be Rock Rapids' most amusing mural may also carry a touch of scandal.

"Ladies of the Night," a 2002 mural located above Short Stop Liquor, recalls the 1890s uprising of Rock Rapids citizens against a house of prostitution in the community. In the mural, four corset-clad women beckon to those on the street below, apparently too convincingly.

"One night, about 11:30, two guys with Sioux Falls plates were out in the street, looking and looking up there at those windows. Finally, they stopped and read the story," Jansma said, referring to the plaques that give the history of each mural. "I got quite a chuckle out of that," she said.

The nonprofit society tries to produce about three murals a year. Its 23rd project, which will depict a threshing bee, is now in the works and should be ready for the city's Heritage Days in June.

It is the hope of members that the murals will not only put Rock Rapids on the map, but provide coming generations with artistic insight into the town's past.

"We are put in the Iowa state tourism book," Wynia explained. "People bring in small groups, church and women's groups. In the future, we hope to continue promoting it."

The murals have been recognized regionally by newspapers in Minnesota, South Dakota and Iowa, and Jansma predicted she gives about 10 tours a year to passersby. The murals could become even more of a tourist destination if the proposed casino in nearby Larchwood sees fruition.

"The history of Rock Rapids seems to disappear and if we're not here to tell it ..." Wynia trailed off.

Fortunately for the small community, that won't be a worry anytime soon.

For more information about the Rock Rapids Mural Society, contact Sandy Wynia at (712) 472-2819.