Unveiling of the murals

Courthouse historic murals depict challenges state's early residents faced

December 13, 2006

Dusty Rhoads stood on the steps inside the courthouse, gazing at the murals on the walls. Like the 400 or so other people who saw the new murals for the first time Friday night, Rhoads was impressed.

"They are very thoughtful paintings," said Rhoads, who lives in Lansing. "My kids are going to have lots of questions to ask about them."

Friday evening, Leavenworth County commissioners unveiled three murals in the Leavenworth County Courthouse.

Though they are works of art, the murals also are educational. Each teaches facts about Kansas history.

Two 13-by 9-foot murals by Ernst Ulmer and Michael Young portray numerous events in the history of Kansas.

The murals depict the struggles Kansans faced in the state's early years. Themes -- including slavery, the underground railroad, Native American history, women's suffrage, Quantrill's raid on Lawrence and Abraham Lincoln's 1859 visit to Leavenworth -- are shown in the stairwell murals.

A third mural, painted by Brad Seever, hangs in the commission meeting room. His earth-toned mural focuses on the state's agricultural history and depicts how sorghum was made long ago.

Leavenworth County Counselor Keyta Kelly led the drive to obtain the murals. And, Friday night, she, and others on the mural committee, finally saw the result of their work.

"They're really pretty," Kelly said of the murals in the courthouse. "It adds so much to it."

After the unveiling, Phyliss Bass stood on the stairs, pointing out different scenes in the murals. Bass is director of Leavenworth's Richard Allen Cultural Center, which includes a black history museum. Bass was particularly interested in the murals because she assisted Michael Young with historical details.

"I thought it was excellent," Bass said. "Both of the artists did a super job."

Bass said the murals paint an accurate history of the state, including the history of blacks in early-day Kansas.

"I praise those gentlemen for what they did," Bass said. "They did their homework and then they presented it in their paintings and I appreciate what they did."

The mural project inadvertently started last spring when Commissioner Clyde Graeber suggested something should be hung on the blank wall behind the commissioners' table.

A committee headed by Kelly looked into commissioning a mural. Eventually, the project expanded, with murals over the staircase, as well as in the commissioners' meeting room. In July, commissioners approved a total of $34,000 to pay for the murals, all painted by area artists. Ulmer lives near Bonner Springs, Seever lives in Easton and Young lives in Merriam, but grew up in the Leavenworth area and plans to move back there.

Leavenworth County Commissioner Dean Oroke, as well as commissioners Graeber and Don Navinsky used long poles to reach up and remove the curtains from in front of the murals at Friday's ceremony.

Oroke was impressed with the murals.

"I think they really tell the history of Leavenworth County from the very beginning and what an important role Leavenworth County has played, particularly between the pro-slavery Missouri and Kansas and even clear down to Quantrill's raid," Oroke said.

Oroke said he was glad to see the enthusiastic gathering at Friday night's unveiling.

"When you vote to spend the kind of money that we did it's a matter of public risk of whether they'll be accepted by the taxpayers or whether it will be rejected," Oroke said. "You make that calculated risk as you vote. But I never heard one bad thing."

Oroke said he thought the murals would continue to be an attraction at the courthouse.

"I've probably seen four or five persons or couples since then who have come to the courthouse just to look at the murals," Oroke said Tuesday. "I think that will be consistent from here on."

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