Western Art

Painting the Town

The colorful Western murals lining the streets of Toppenish, Washington, do more than attract tourists. Each painted wall brings hope and instills the values of the West for residents and visitors alike.

Maybe it’s something in the paint or the way the light highlights the now-colorful streets at dusk. Ever since the small town of Toppenish, Washington, launched its mural program more than 25 years ago to celebrate its centennial, the mood and overall appearance of the town has changed. What was once a downtrodden community with high rates of unemployment and crime became a canvas for new starts.

Jim Duke, a native of Toppenish, has played an active role in the shift of the town. On a fall day, the 81-year-old sits high in a covered wagon he made himself, with a microphone attached to his vest. Jesse and Frank, his 14-year-old Fjords, stand patiently as tourists find a place to sit. It’s mid-October and Duke is about to begin the last tour of the season. Typically he gives up to five tours a day, from May through September, but provides tours after that on a reservations-only basis.

Newman Myrah traveled from Portland, Oregon, to create Rodeo. Duke says that while Myrah was painting it, a visiting couple took his picture. Myrah received the picture after he finished the mural, and he later returned to Toppenish and added himself into the painting. Photo by Katie Frank.

Duke launched Toppenish Mural Tours three days after the first mural, Clearing the Land, was completed on June 3, 1989. Having grown up with horses on his father’s hops farm, Duke is a natural at driving a team.

“Growing up, I wanted to be a rodeo cowboy,” he laughs. “But my dad said, ‘Quit riding those bucking horses!’”

Instead, Duke and his brother traveled to Wyoming to work on Gordon Shaw’s 5,600-acre ranch, where he was paid $100 a month, plus room and board. After cowboying for Shaw, Duke returned to Washington and spent time on Harry Kent’s 3K Ranch in White Swan. Kent was a Yakama Indian rancher and respected polo player.

Eventually, after serving in the U.S. Army and National Guard, Duke returned to his hometown, raised a family with his wife, Joan, and naturally fell into the position of tour guide as soon as the murals started popping up.

For years, Toppenish was known as a rough community and was not a destination town. Realizing the need for change, a handful of citizens traveled to Chemainus, British Columbia, where an artful initiative had turned the town around. Seeing the positive results it brought to Chemainus, the travelers took notes on how to start their own unique spin on the idea. Going back to the town’s roots, the town agreed on the motto, “Where the West Still Lives.”

“Toppenish has always been a Western town, since day one,” Duke explains. “[The citizens] wanted to have a theme that would introduce the town to the public, and we went with something that was authentic rather than just a picture on the wall.

“All of our murals have something to do with the history of Toppenish around the 1920s,” says Duke.

After Clearing the Land was completed, the town was hit hard with art fever. For the next three years, its residents welcomed more than eight murals a year, and by the end of 1993, 35 paintings decorated the town of Toppenish.

“We thought we’d painted everything that wasn’t moving,” says Duke. “But we just finished our 75th mural.”

The mural project is based solely on volunteers, fundraisers and donations, although artists are paid for their pieces. Artists are recruited from around the United States and Canada. They submit ideas for murals, and those must be approved by the Toppenish Mural Society. From start to finish, each mural costs thousands of dollars.

Lou Shattuck (1892-1978), shown in this murals, was a local cattle rancher who was passionate about Shire horses and was well known for his six-horse hitch. He helped organize the Toppenish Pow Wow and junior livestock show. Don Gray of Flagstaff, Arizona, painted the mural in 1994. Photo by Katie Frank.

“It’s all volunteer—no government or city taxes,” Duke says. “We have an art show in the summertime, and we have an art auction. It’s self-supporting.”

The first Saturday of every June, citizens and visitors gather to witness the birth of a new murals, a process aptly called “Mural in a Day.” Between 14 and 18 artists collaborate to complete the piece, which takes almost the entire days. Artists also are called in to restore and touch up older paintings that have weathered through time. Throughout the year, other murals are painted to add to the numbers.

Established in 1907, Toppenish is part of the Yakama Indian Reservation, which is the second-largest reservation in the United States and includes 14 different tribes and bands. For such a quaint town, it’s rich with historical rodeo figures.

Maud Bolin’s face graces the southwest wall of the Toppenish Review building on East Toppenish Avenue.

Bolin, a Yakama Indian and one of the earliest female aviators, performed in the Spain Brothers’ rodeo shows, and competed at the Pendleton Round-Up and the Ellensburg Rodeo.

Across town, on the United Telephone Company’s office, is Ruth Parton, a National Cowgirl Hall of Fame inductee. The six-part mural shows Parton riding broncs, performing tricks and riding a relay race.

Since the first mural was painted 25 years ago, Toppenish has welcomed thousands of tourists every year. Photo by Katie Frank.

“She had a Thoroughbred ranch and was the first person to race them around here,” says Duke. “She performed in Madison Square Garden, and later married Harry Kent.”

Parton’s connection to his former boss is just one more close connection Duke has to his hometown and its residents.

Since the murals started spreading, the town’s atmosphere has drastically improved. Crime and graffiti have been reduced, while tourism has grown. Duke provides tours for local primary schools and explains to them the Western history of their town.

Duke started Toppenish Mural Tours as a way to show people beautiful art and share the culture behind his hometown. After more than 25 years of covered-wagon rides, however, he can’t pick out a favorite mural.

“They’re all so nice,” he says.

Lucky for Duke, there’s no sign of slowing for the murals. Maybe the next “Mural in a Day” will be the most beautiful yet.

This article was originally published in February 2015 issue of Western Horseman.

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