RED CLOUD -- Red Cloud Postmaster Brad Young has come to treasure the three murals displayed in the post office there.
"It's something so unique," he said. "I've been here going on 25 years. After a while the biggest thing is that I would never want anything to happen to them. Maybe that's the lucky thing about being in a small town; we really don't have any problems."
Red Cloud is one of four area towns included in a Depression-era government program that placed murals in post offices. A new book from the Nebraska State Historical Society tells the story of those murals.
"Nebraska's Post Office Murals: Born of the Depression, Fostered by the New Deal" includes 120 pages of photographs and never-before-published artists' sketches and drawings.
Post offices in 12 towns around Nebraska received murals: Albion, Auburn, Crawford, Geneva, Hebron, Minden, Ogallala, O'Neill, Pawnee City, Red Cloud, Schuyler and Valentine.
Doug Rung, a retired Geneva High School social studies teacher, likes the fact the murals depict Nebraska history. For instance, in the Geneva mural "Building a Sod House," men are depicted doing just that. Sod, Rung said, was called Nebraska marble.
"It really makes the post office look great," he said. "When you think of a post office, you think of just going in there and getting some business done, but when you get a chance to look around and see these murals, it's a different type of history."
Author Bob Puschendorf, an associate director of the Historical Society, said the murals were assigned to post offices constructed in the late '30s or early '40s that had money left in the construction budget.
"It was a precedent for art in public buildings that exists today," he said.
He said the Geneva mural is probably 17 feet long and 6 feet tall.
Even though only 12 Nebraska post offices have murals, Puschendorf said, about 1,100 post offices nationwide were included in the program. In the book, Puschendorf included background information about the program and other Depression-era arts programs.
Each Nebraska post office with a mural has its own section in the book.
In his research, Puschendorf learned about project supervision by the U.S. Treasury Department.
"They watched the quality of the art very closely," he said. The artist submitted several designs to the Treasury for every mural. Puschendorf used correspondence between the artist and the Treasury, now belonging to the National Archives and Records Administration, to write about the process to make each piece.
Each mural is also depicted in the book in a gatefold photo.
"Since they're long and narrow, we wanted to make sure they were portrayed lengthwise," Puschendorf said.
To research the book, he spoke to the children of some of the artists as well as reading local newspaper accounts of the murals' installations. Controversies developed both locally and in Washington due to the murals' quality or content. Red Cloud exemplified the controversy. It is the only Nebraska post office with multiple murals painted as part of this project.
"Loading Cattle," the first mural approved for Red Cloud, was originally intended for the post office in Greybull, Wyo. Local residents, including the postmaster, stated they wanted something that depicted Chief Red Cloud. The Treasury found money for two additional, smaller murals in Red Cloud: "Moving Westward" and "Stockade Builders."
"Moving Westward" includes American Indians.
The murals were typically placed above the postmaster's door. In Red Cloud the two smaller murals are above the postal clerk's office.
Young said besides the homes of a certain famous author, the post office murals have become another tourist destination in Red Cloud.
"It's something so unique, there's not many around, so it is kind of a drawing card to the inside of the post office." He said. "(Visitors) come and tour Willa Cather and then they mention it there that we've got these murals."
Puschendorf said he could not select a favorite among the Nebraska murals.
"They're all my favorites because they all have such great stories behind them," he said.