Ashland's Mural Walk

Ashland, Wisconsin's Chamber of Commerce has boasted that it is known as "Lake Superior's Hometown." This is a deserving reflection of pride, and underscores why the towns people have embraced a Murals project so much. These murals create civic pride and are essential to any thriving metropolitan area. Commenting on urban murals in general, Jane Golden, director, Mural Arts Program, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has said, "It's like they're the autobiography of this city. They have the power to move the soul."

October 27, 2007


We passed through Ashland in the county of the same name this past summer on our way to explore the upper Bayfield Peninsula. We've done several stories on this area, which are listed in the right column. It is a fascinating area to visit and explore.

During our last visit, we focused so much on the old iron ore docks that we missed the downtown. In missing the downtown, we missed "Ashland's Mural Walk," as it's called by the town's citizens and businesses. Ashland has an eight block main street where Ashland mural artists, Kelly Meredith and Susan Prentice Martinsen, have painted delightful and informative murals on the sides of buildings.

The Ashland Chamber of Commerce has done a marvelous job showing the murals and describing them in detail. has also done a good job. We commend both sites to you.

The city's Chamber of Commerce has boasted that it is known as "Lake Superior's Hometown." This is a deserving reflection of pride, and underscores why the towns people have embraced these murals so much.

We are high on Wisconsin's Lake Superior coastline, and hope to see it develop in a brisk way that benefits those who have lived and worked there for so long.

We wrote and article, "Historic buildings make towns unique." The article was inspired by Mary Jane Hettinga, then the executive director of the Marathon County Historical Society. Among other things, she wrote this:

"The past is important because the past is responsible for everything we are today. It is our individual collective identity. Today things have changed. Almost every town looks the same. They are no longer unique, unless they have retained some of the historic heritage. It is the uniqueness of the historic buildings that make each place individual."

This expresses why the Ashland Murals are so special.

Ashland is on a plateau, about thirty feet above Lake Superior, in the Lake Superior Lowland Geographic Province, where the land is a sloping plain stretching down from the nearby Northern Highland Geographic Province like the sloping sides of a bowl. In fact, Lake Superior is sunk in this bowl.

Ashland County WIGenWeb has a nice description of the city's early days. We'll extract this as a sample:

"On the fifth day of July, 1854, Asaph Whittlesey and George Kilborn left La Pointe (Madeline Island, Wisconsin's and Ashland County's Apostle Islands) in a row boat, with design of finding a 'town site' on some available point near the 'head of the bay' ... Mr. Whittlesey gives the following account of the landing: 'As I stepped ashore,' Mr. Kilborn exclaimed, 'Here is the place for the big city!'"

And right he was.

The murals reflect the history of the area, and the values of its citizens.

Now, there does seem to be a downside. A source has informed me that these murals will prevent any of the buildings on which they are painted to be considered for the National Historic Register. I would also mention that in some communities there is vigorous debate over the value of the murals. Some say they reflect a by-gone era and we need to concentrate on the modern. Others say the mural is not original to the building and therefore hides the original beauty and historical significance of the building

Asaph Whittlesey Mural

Depicts the Ashland National Bank as it appeared in 1892.


This mural is on the back end of a building that has been around for a while, adjacent to a small parking lot that would otherwise be a typical, boring hunk of pavement. The mural actually wraps around the building so you can see a little more from the street. This portion pictures the old Ashland National Bank, and four of the town fathers of the 19th century, one who founded the town, a store-owner who brought the railway to town, a doctor-druggist, and a multi-tasked businessman and servant of the people. Studying what made men like this tick is a life's work of its own. Having read about many of these kinds of men, the one characteristic that always comes to mind is that they all had vision.

WhittleseyAsaph WhittleseyAsaphPhoto

On the left is a close-up of Asaph Whittlesey from the mural. It appears to have been drawn from a photo of him shown on the right, held by the Wisconsin Historical Society, and presented by Legend has it that he had dressed for the long walk and train ride to Madison where he would take a seat in the state legislature. Note he's carrying a gun.

It's fun to note that Frank Nebenburgh of Ashland, Wisconsin, a Northland College student back on March 14, 2003, portrayed Whittlesey as part of the Whittlesey Creek National Wildlife Refuge Centennial celebration. He depicted Whittseley in a 10 minute story. The US Fish & Wildlife Service "News & Views" edition of April 29, 2003 has a nice article with other photos about this event, entitled, "Living history character adds perspective to Whittlesey Creek NWR Time Capsule Event." That a college student would contribute like this to his community is very uplifting.

Aviation Mural

Celebrates Ashland’s early aviation history, its jazz past, as well as Schiller’s Shoe Store which was located in the store it is painted on.


Your editor is an old Air Force vet, so this is fun. And it's clever. It's clever because the artists picked a building that already has a shape that is much like a hangar. The lines of the mural's hangar match those of the building on which it is painted.

We believe the aircraft displayed by the artists is of the historic JN-4 Curtiss Jenny employed by the early US Air Mail Service and emerging Army Air Force. It turns out there was a competitor to the JN-4, the Standard J-1, produced as a WWI primary trainer. It looks very much like a JN-4 with differences that can only be argued out in an Ashland pub. We'll go with the Jenny as the theme of this mural is air mail more than it is military.

There is some fascinating history here which we'll have to explore more some other time. As a general statement, the Midwest has traditionally been a place where an air show is always a success. That was most surely true during the early days of aviation. We'll also remark that many, many aviation businesses and aviation pioneers had their start in the Midwest, and Wisconsin was no exception.

In 1911, the Curtiss Airplane Co. put on a spellbinding air show at the Ashland County Fair, flying race tracks and figure eights through the air, motivating boys and young men to fly, giving them a thirst to not only fly but come up with a better widget.


Howard Paul Culver, third from the left in the mural, is an interesting guy.

He's well known to the Smithsonian Institute, born in Eau Claire in 1893, grew up in Ashland, then settled in Lake Geneva. He preferred being called Paul. He became a test pilot and flying instructor during WWI, and was an Army airmail pilot in 1918. The history of air mail is riveting, filled with incredible courage and determination.

Paul Culver was one of four pilots who flew the nation's first regular two-way airmail run between New York City and Washignton, DC, on May 15, 1918. He flew over 3,000 miles, suffering only one forced landing in 36 airmail trips. This is a photo of H-P taken in 1918, presented by Ralph Cooper.

Now, think about this: look at the open cockpit, think about the weather, and recall that these guys had no navigation equipment.

In the 1930s, the Army took over air mail service from commercial carriers. One pilot has been quoted saying this:

"Picture an Army aviator flying at night in subzero weather . . . in the open with a biting wind (lashing) him at 100 miles an hour. . . . He is trying to navigate his ship . . . to operate the radio . . . (and) hang onto the controls (while) sitting in a tiny cockpit with hardly enough room to move."

John Frisbee, writing "AACMO--Fiasco or Victory?" published in the March 1995 edition of Air Force Magazine, reported this:

"Lt. Joseph Hopkins, later a brigadier general, described one flight into Denver, Colo., in an open-cockpit P-12. After he landed, he had to use his right hand to remove his frost-bitten left from the throttle."

Those were the same elements faced by air mail pilots in its earliest days.

Paul Culver's wife, Edith Dodd Culver, would write two books, Tailspins and The Day the Airmail Began. While commenting on Tailspin, Publisher's Weekly said this:

"Culver's late husband, Paul, one of the country's earliest pilots, was a member of the team that carried the first bags of air mail. Here his wife recalls those days when to be a pilot was to court death and when marriage to a pilot presumed early widowhood."


Incidentally, the mural of his wife standing next to him was probably drawn from this photo, which dresses up the front cover of the book Tailspins. Culver was a lucky man in more ways than one!


Beckwith Havens in Wisconsin, 1911. Presented by Early Aviators.

In 1911, Edith Dodd Culver was a young teenager in Ashland. The very popular touring aviator, Beckwith Havens, came to town with his Curtiss aircraft. Michael J. Groc, in his book, Forward in Flight: The History of Aviation in Wisconsin, quoted her saying this of Havens:

"Well, I remember how excited the crowd (in Ashland) was to be introduced to this handsome young hero from the east at a reception held for him at the Elks Club ... He flew "graceful figure eights (above the race track at the country fairgrounds) ... He was the drawing card of the fair."

Groc goes on to say the following about Havens:

"Though he might be the idol of the local teenagers and the well-paid star of the show, an exhibition pilot was still a working man. Havens recalled how he rode the trolley from his downtown Ashland hotel to the fairgrounds, unpacked his machine from the special railroad freight crates, assembled it, tested the motor, pushed it out to the head of what served as a runaway in the fairgrounds infield and stood ready to fly at the appointed time."

John Kaminski was a famous exhibition aviator of the time. Legend brags that he was the youngest licensed Polish aviator in the world. He was a stunt pilot, and the first licensed pilot in Wisconsin. He crashed at the Milwaukee Yacht Club in June 1915 and at Tomahawk, Wisconsin July 4, 1914. We have also seen that he crashed on July 15, 1912 and narrowly escaped death. This latter crashed resulted in the cancellation of an Ashland show. He survived all this crashes and jumped in the saddle again. They finally had to ground him in 1919 because of failing eyesight resulting from his eyes being splashed by gasoline. Kaminski is in the Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame.

So is Walter E. Lees, born in Janesville, a chauffeur for a family in Ashland, and married to a girl from Ashland named Loa Lloyd. Lees and Culver were good friends.


This is Postmaster Elizabeth Lathrop at Madeline Island in 1919. Barnstorming pilot Harold Russell gave her her first airplane ride. Drawn from Michael J. Groc, in his book, Forward in Flight: The History of Aviation in Wisconsin.

Schiller's Shoe Store front


This is fun, painted on the side of Watland's Shoe Store, which used to be Schiller's Shoe Store. It depicts the front of Schiller's with "Old Man" Schiller standing at the front door along with three on the left showing off their shoes, three others celebrating 1920s jazz, and three of his workers with their white jackets off to the right.


You can see Mr. Schiller standing at the door watching the new moves of 1920s era jazz. It's hard to tell what he thinks of that young lad, but it does seem like the lad is trying to watch his back!

Schiller's Shoe store has ties to the lore of Paul Bunyan, "said to be a lumberjack of gargantuan size and titanic strength." The myths about Paul Bunyan began in the 19th century among lumberjacks the country over. Many towns argue they were Bunyan's home. An organization known as the Mystic Knights of the Blue Ox formed in the 1930s in Bayfield City. They would hold solemn rites at a picnic every March 20, the last day of winter, to honor Bunyan. The name "Blue Ox" came from Babe, Bunyan's blue ox.

John Connor, writing "Bayfield proves to the world that legendary Paul Bunyan used to live there" published by The Evening Telegram of Superior, Wisconsin on February 4, 1935, said that some 500 men belonging to the Mystic Knights gathered together for a "dinner out" on the woodlot of S.A. Feldmeier in Bayfield on February 3, 1935 to pay tribute to Bunyan. As they approached the site, they saw "a broad shadow and a huge cloud of smoke" moving away in the opposite direction. They then came upon a large area cleared of trees and snow "as if by one fell swoop of a huge axe, Paul's." They said they found Paul's axe together with many of his other belongings, including his false teeth the size of elephant teeth.

You need to read Connor's article, but for our purposes, a museum was assembled displaying many of Bunyan's possessions found during these and many other similar episodes. The museum included "a size 50 shoe made by Schiller Shoe Company of Ashland."

Lumberjack Mural

This mural is a long one, so we'll show it in several photos, marching you from left to right. It depicts the men, and one rare woman, of Ashland’s lumber era, when the workday was from 4 a.m. until dark, first freeze to first thaw. An average day’s work for a pair of “sawyers” was 100 pine logs, at $1.00 a day. In 1893, ten thousand lumberjacks worked in logging camps to supply Ashland’s ten sawmills.





All but two of the people, all men and one woman, are of real people wearing the garb of their real livelihood. There were about 10,000 lumberjacks working in the region to supply Ashland's 10 sawmills in the late 1800s. Speaking broadly, the first industry to boom in this region was the mining industry, first the mines of the Copper Country in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, then the Gogebic Iron Range near Ashland. Then the rail lines were completed and Ashland's ore docks were in full bloom. Lumbering grew as needs throughout the country grew, and as the mining and rail industries grew. Throughout, brownstone was quarried and shipped. Many buildings in the old town are made from it. In 1900, Ashland had a population of about 13,000, with about 11 ore docks on the waterfront, some 13-18 sawmills, a pulp mill and a blast furnace. There was an incredible mix of people from all over Europe.


Here again, we'll show multiple photos. This mural is a compilation of various Ashland storefronts from the early 1900s.


The truth is, if you're not expecting this scene, and give it a quick look out of the corner of your eye, you might think it's all real, or surreal. It depicts, l-r up to the windshield of the car, Security Bank, Ashland tobacco co., Royal Theater, Powers and Fasshage, Weeds Drug Store.


This depicts, l-r, Montgomery & Stock Paint Store, E.J. Born & Co. Jewelers, Chicago One price Clothing Store, Hayess Dry Goods, 1421 W. 2nd Street. and City Drug Store.

Ashland, like all towns, has its share of the neon jungle kinds of places. But the town center, like many Wisconsin towns, has worked hard to preserve itself. We find that to be good. Today, so often we go into huge mega-stores where only a precious few who work there know anything about what they sell, and even fewer care. But back then, the country was filled with small businesses run by "Average Joes" who knew their products inside and out. We could do with more of that today.

Dhooge's Store

Depicts Dhooge’s Grocery of Ashland in 1910. An era when settlers were “Farming the Cut Over” and going to town for supplies often meant a two day event for area settlers.


This depicts Dhooge's Grocery Store in 1910. A store that looks very much like this has recently opened in downtown Wausau. The common belief is it cannot make it, that it cannot compete. We're not sure that's true. We'll see, and keep our fingers crossed.



This mural depicts three lighthouses, from left to right, Devil's Island, Sand Island, and Outer Island. All three are on Apostle Islands by those names to the north. The three men were light house keepers for each, with the baby and the lady part of the family of Emanuel Luik, second from the left.


Ashland's history above all things rests on trade, Lake Superior and the rail lines. You can see how these lighthouses were situated on the outskirts of the northern side of the Apostle Islands, to protect ships on Lake Superior when approaching the area. F. Ross Holland, Jr., Great American Lighthouses, considers the lighthouses of the Apostle Islands, and there are now more, to be "the largest and finest single collection of lighthouses in the country."

Veterans Mural

This mural is a long one, so we'll show it in several photos, marching you from left to right.




This mural depicts actual veterans from Ashland.

They're not on the mural, but the Herman Verville family of Ashland County holds the record for the most family members in World War II. The family contributed eightsons, of a total of nine, the most siblings serving together in a single branch of the US Military. The eight sons included Walter, 33; Leonard, 30; Stanley, 26; Morris, 34; George, 22; Raymond, 38; Charles, 40; and Howard, 20. The ninth, Woodrow, tried to enlist but was denied because he had asthma, though we have seen a report that says he was deferred in order to help his 70-year-old father on the farm.

He's not on the mural, but General Douglas MacArthur, born in Little Rock, Arkansas, entered active military service from Ashland, Wisconsin. His father, then Lt. Arthur MacArthur, commanded the 24th Wisconsin Infantry. Both received the Medal of Honor. Arthur received his for valor with the 24th Wisconsin in the Civil War.

The Waitresses

The owner of the building wanted to honor the women who raised him and had recently passed away.


This is among the newest of the murals, dedicated in August 2007. It depicts the "1940 Waitresses."

The overall Ashland Murals project undertaken by artists Martinson and Meredith began in 1998. It started as a project to beautify the back of one building, and became so popular that the endeavor now seeks to beautify the whole town, and tell the town's store in a way that makes its residents proud. From what we have read, the town continues to be warm to more murals, so we can expect news one to pop up over time. The town's people see these as a way to reflect their downtown's vitality, and their own.

Why urban murals?

As a way to conclude, we searched around for explanations for why urban murals exist and what people think about them. We've collected some observations.

"It's like they're the autobiography of this city. They have the power to move the soul."

Jane Golden, director, Mural Arts Program, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

"Mural art is not a search for an audience, but for a public space to display the values of its creators and audience. A wall mural is one way to extend art in a social context. Wall paintings make public statements about life as it is, as it was, or as it should be. Murals are a socially committed, highly visible form of political art. Mural wall paintings can become a vehicle for public voices and neighborhood self-definition, as they symbolize location and define its character in the eyes of the residents and outsiders. Murals can serve as local landmarks and as territorial markers."

Caruso, H.Y.& Caruso, J. (2003). Mural painting as public art. Electronic Magazine of Multicultural Education

"We wanted to create something that would make people slow down, let them know they were not just cars on a street but driving through a neighborhood where real people live ... We don't do plop art - art that is plopped into the community by artists who tell the residents they know more what should be there than [the residents] do ... More than 200 people from the community helped on that one (mural) ... Some of the faces on the mural are of actual people from the history of the organization."

Amy Sananman, founder and executive director of the Groundswell Community Mural Project in Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York

"Despite all the challenges to public art, ... it creates civic pride and is essential to any thriving metropolitan area. Public art offers a sense of place and provokes thought and imagination in the middle of a person's daily routine."

The Osgood File (CBS Radio Network)