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Small town, big art: Wall murals tell an illustrated history of Louisiana, Mo.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Louisiana, Mo., is a picturesque river town on the Mississippi about 70 miles north of St. Louis, up Highway 79. Just south of Hannibal and north of Clarksville, Louisiana may lack the cachet of an icon like Mark Twain or a lock and dam that makes for prime eagle watching.

But Louisiana has something of its own -- wall murals, more murals than any other place in the state.

Now, 24 wall murals, most clustered downtown, adorn the walls of many of the town's handsome, historic brick buildings. (Click here for a list with the location of all the murals.) While colorful and eye-catching, the murals are much more than decoration. They are glimpses into the community's history -- and the personalities and events that shaped it.

The wall murals were the brainchild of Ed Pennington who saw how a wall mural project had rejuvenated tourism in a Florida community he knew, said Ron Allely, now the president of the mural association and the owner of the Applegate Bed and Breakfast.

"People here were receptive" to the idea that something similar could boost the number of visitors to Louisiana, said Allely, and help beautify the community.

In a remarkable display of community spirit, 20 murals were painted and installed between 2000 and 2006. Two fundraisers netted $21,000 -- a goodly amount but not enough to cover all the costs. Fortunately, said Allely, six local businesses fully sponsored the murals on their buildings while other businesses contributed a healthy chunk of the cost.

A 12-person committee developed the basic guidelines, encouraging murals with a historic theme. A variety of artists competed for commissions. One -- a prisoner at the nearby Northeast Correctional Center in Bowling Green -- painted the "Vintage Louisiana Fire Engine" at Georgia and 6th streets. Most of the 15 artists, though, were local, including an art teacher and students in a high school art class. Others had familial connections to Louisiana.

Each mural, said Allely, has a story behind it. Some are purely historical, like the mural of explorer Zebulon Pike, the namesake of Pike County in both Missouri and Illinois -- as well as Pike's Peak; or of aviator Charles Lindbergh, who made barnstorming flights, for $5 a head, in Pike County before his trans-Atlantic flight; or George W. Trimble, who made a fortune in the old West and then used some of it to help poor folks in Louisiana. His mural is on the Trimble senior citizens center.

At this point, stories of painting the murals have entered local lore.

Hand-rolled cigarette is missing.

In one case, where art doesn't imitiate life,  Alleley recounted the "back story" of the mural of the Boat Club at Tennessee Street and the river. As Allely tells it, the portrait of the longtime owner of the boat club is missing one of his most distinctive features -- a handrolled cigarette. Fearing that a handrolled cigarette would look too much like a joint, the artist apparently up and refused to include one in the mural.

Local artist John Stoeckley painted the first mural, "The Delta Queen Approaching the Highway 54 Bridge," at Georgia and 5th St. (He also did the mural on the Stark Brothers nursery at the west end of Georgia Street.) The Delta Queen mural includes a rather large, leaping frog in the corner, which Stoeckley had not included in his original plan. The frog, he says, became a source of local controversy.

One day, Stoeckley recalls, he was filling his tank at a local gas station when he ran into a friend and started talking. A pickup truck -- complete with guns and dogs -- pulled up behind Stoeckley. The driver of the pickup overheard Stoeckley and his friend and realized that Stoeckley was the artist responsible for that troublesome frog.

As the driver pulled out, he turned to Stoeckley, who was totally unprepared for the pickup driver's response.

"He gave me a big thumbs up," recalls Stoeckley, "and called out, 'Great frog!'"

With that one gesture, Stoeckley knew the wall murals would be a community success.

Five more fun things to do in Louisiana

1) Stroll Georgia Street, home to some stunning 19th- and 20th-century mansions, many of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

2) Stop at Henderson Park, find a park bench and enjoy the majestic views of the Mississippi.

3) Dine in the Eagle's Nest Bistro. The restaurant has an electic lunch menu but is also known for its Sunday brunch.

4) Enjoy the Henry Lay Sculpture Park at St. Louis University's Lay Center for Education and the Arts. (For safety's sake, Lay Center is closed in mid-November during deer season. Call 573-754-4726 for hours.)

5) Normally, I would recommend driving Highway 79 north to Hannibal from Louisiana for one of the most dramatic and colorful fall foliage drives in the state, bar none. Unfortunately, MoDOT has closed this segment of the highway so visitors will be routed on a detour between the two towns. There is no official date for the closed portion to reopen.

50 Miles of Art

Twice a year, spring and fall, Hannibal, Louisiana and Clarksville host the 50 Miles of Art weekend. This year, the event takes place Nov. 6-7.

Numerous artists and artisans are participating, and visitors can meet them, see their studios and, of course, buy their works. A variety of arts and crafts is represented: painting, photography, prints, pottery, glass working, furniture, fiber and sculpture.

The origins of the event go back 15 years ago when pen and ink artist John Stoeckley, potter Steve and painter Lindsey Ayers started a program to recruit artists to the area of northeeastern Missouri that includes Hannibal, Louisiana and Clarksville.

"We both have retail galleries," said Stoeckley, who owns Reflections of Missouri at 107 South 9th St. "For us to advertise," especially in the St. Louis market, "was tough. But if we could bring a cluster of artists to the area, we'd attract visitors" from St. Louis and other places.

That effort to recruit artists led to the creation of the Great River Road of Professional Artists. At the time, said Stoeckley, the development director of Pike County worked hard with real estate agents to find affordable properties where artists could live and work.

Eventually, the association dissolved, but it left a critical mass of artists who continue to recruit others but more on an individual basis.

"One action we all agree on," says Stoeckley, "is this twice a year event -- 50 Miles of Art -- to promote the artists' studios."

Besides encouraging people to explore these three historic river towns, the event has had an unpredictable, but felicitous result, says Stoeckley. "We've had a lot of people come to Louisiana to buy second homes and retirement homes. That has been good."

In Louisiana, three artists are participating this. Besides Stoeckley's gallery, two others will be open: ASL Pewter at 123 S. Third St., which makes historically accurate lead-free pewter ware; and multi-media artist Jon D. Moran's Studio at at 701 Georgia St. (Incidentally, Moran did the Cornish Ford mural at 200 N. Carolina St.)

Both Hannibal and Clarksville have active artist communities. In fact, says Stoeckley, Hannibal and Clarksville have been more successful in attracting artists than Louisiana.

In Hannibal, 18 artists will be taking part.

"We also have a fairly large number of local artists who are active in area-wide shows and local galleries. We have three art galleries on Main Street with the majority of the artists represented from Hannibal, Quincy and other local towns. Four artists in Alliance Art Gallery are also members of Best of Missouri Hands, with three of those four being juried members of that organization," said Brenda Beck Fisher of the Alliance Art Gallery.

In Clarksville, 10 members of the artists' guild are participating and "will have 'gifts with purchase' and offer free snacks and drinks," said Lori Purk of Simpatico, an art gallery co-op that has a visiting artist every weekend. "We will have maps of the three communities and a list of all that are participating. We can suggest things to see along the way and places to stop and eat."

Purk adds that the artists' and craftsmen's demonstrations are one of the highlights of the weekend. The Clarksville Glassworks will demonstrate glass-making while the Dawn of Creation art studio usually does a jewelry-making workshop. The Great River Road Pottery and Wood shop will show how pots are thrown while Ralph Quick of Windsor Chair Shop, will be doing steam-bending demos twice daily -- as well as making spindles and splitting wood for spindles.

Purk summarizes the appeal of 50 Miles of Art: "A beautiful fall weekend is a great excuse to jump in the car and get out of the big city for an adventure."

Susan Hegger comes to St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon as the politics and issues editor, a position she has held at the Beacon since it started in 2008.

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