Murals offer a glimpse at local history

Thursday, February 7, 2019

This mural greets those entering the Dawson County Courthouse. The mural designed and painted by students of former Dawson County High School art instructor Floyd Smith is a visual history of Dawson County. This is one of several murals painted around Glendive.

Jon Decker photos

A section of a mural that covers the exterior walls of the Frontier Gateway Museum is shown above. The mural, which is over 35 years old, is in disrepair and museum officials are working to determine if they will attempt to save it or if it will have to be covered.

Anyone who’s ever been to the county courthouse has likely noticed the massive mural decorating the entry way.

The painting tells a history of Glendive with images that go further back in time from left to right. It starts at the staircase depicting the mighty dinosaurs and ends on the left with an oil drill. Where did it come from? Well, there is a quiet history to this and other murals that have dotted town the last few decades.

The mural in the courthouse is the best preserved of the local murals from the era of Dawson County High School art teacher Floyd Smith. He passed away nearly three decades ago, but left behind a legacy of art that is slowly fading from the town’s memory.

During the early 1980s, Smith took select students on field trips to paint murals in an effort to beautify the community. One of the original painters of the courthouse mural is now a state representative. In 1983, now-state representative Alan Doane was a senior in Smith’s art class.

“It was like a privilege to be on there,” Doane said.

The courthouse mural was a cooperative effort between Smith and his students.

“We kinda all came up with our own design and Smith had to approve,” Doane said.

Students created portions of the murals based on their interests in Glendive’s history.

“I always liked the western stuff, so I drew the horse and cattle in the field,” Doane said.

Students were sure to leave their mark in the painting.

“There’s a bunch of 83s painted in the bushes and stuff if you look close. We thought we were being pretty clever,” Doane said.

Smith’s legacy went beyond his own works.

One of his former students, Leona Morasko painted her own mural decades later at the now defunct Kmart.

“I had just started working there,” Morasko said. “About a year later (my manager) asked me to paint it. I remember 2001 is the date I put.”

Decades before, Morasko was one of Smith’s students who painted the mural on the old senior center. The center is now a bakery, and the mural is in so much disrepair that the names of its creators are long peeled away.

As for the Kmart mural? The store is now closed, and the wall has been covered.

But Morasko offered up a description of her work: “It was Makoshika. I painted a BNSF engine and a big ol’ paddlefish in the middle.”

Another mural that has captured Eastern Montana history is the one decorating the exterior of the Frontier Gateway Museum depicting the early pioneer days.

However, according to the museum’s director Fayette Miller, “It’s in very bad shape.”

The state of the mural has deteriorated so much that the museum’s board has considered covering it up with siding. However, any plans to deal with the mural are in the preplanning phase.

“It’s up in the air right now,” Miller said. “The whole east side has problems. But you have to stop and realize that it was put on there in ‘81 or ‘82. So it’s been up a long time.”

For now, the fate of the museum mural is uncertain.

“Hopefully, we’ll find a solution,” Miller said.

Some members of the art community would rather the mural stay or get repaired instead of covered.

“Even in the shape it’s in, is better than just covering it,” former director of Dawson County Art’s Unlimited Sandy Silha said. “It’s a shame.”

Silha’s associate Jo Ann Hunt, whose husband painted the museum’s door years ago, highlighted the draw of the mural to tourists.

“When people come into town they’re wondering where they should go visit,” Hunt said, adding that if the mural is covered, “It’s too bad they won’t have that view.”

On a brighter note, Morasko hasn’t stopped her painting.

She continues work on a mural at the VFW.

“It’s got an eagle head and a big flag. I’m not done with it,” she said.

There have been also a few more recent additions to Glendive’s mural scene, including those adorning the walls of the EPEC.

The murals all eventually become a part of the town’s history and serve as a reminder of the talented artists who have at least at one point, called Glendive home.

Reach Jon Decker at news@rangerreview.com.

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