By 1940, the New Deal era and its programs reached the farthest corners of the nation, including mountain towns such as Boone, NC. It was during this year that a beautiful stone post office was dedicated in Boone, NC. Yet, it was not merely the exterior that was a treasure for the town but the interior, as well. Along with the Works Progress Administrations building project that resulted in the construction of this post office was an artwork program to decorate the walls of federal post offices. The artwork that emerged from this program, specifically “Young Daniel Boone on a hunting expedition in Watauga Country,” helped to not only assert but solidify Boone’s identity within the nation.
In 1937, the Public
Buildings Act was passed which set in motion the construction of post offices
across the State of North Carolina, including the historic Downtown Boone Post
Office. This post office, a
Colonial Revival cut-stone building, was built by the Works Progress
Administration in 1938 to address the growing demand for postal services since
the population of the Town of Boone was growing.
Reflecting the economic role of the WPA during the Great Depression, the post
office, completed in 1938 and dedicated on April 10, 1940, brought ten new jobs
to local residents.
The exterior masonry on
the building is beautiful, but step inside the lobby, and you will see another
layer of beauty. A variety of marble types are found throughout, and original
features, such as mailboxes, windows, and brass ceiling fixtures, are still
used. Yet, what captures one’s
attention is the mural on the wall. This oil-on-canvas is a mural titled
“Daniel Boone on a Hunting Trip in Watauga County” and is hanging on the east
wall above the postmaster’s office and measures 11’ 8” x 4’ 6” and is 54 square
feet. The mural was commissioned
by the United States Treasury Department, Section of Painting and Sculpture as
part of a joint U.S. Treasury and WPA 48-state art competition to field artwork
for federal post offices.
Alan Tompkins, a
Connecticut painter, won the competition and produced the 1940 mural, but the current
mural was not his first. The first mural was
scrapped after this first depiction of the region brought controversy because
it featured tobacco farmers in lowland fields. This piece was displayed
in the Corcoran Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., but locals said “it stinks,” and
an editorial called it “an artistic monstrosity.” Thus, a mural more
representative of Boone’s character in the depiction of the town’s namesake was
produced after the artist spent days surveying the community and speaking with
The approved mural now
featured Daniel Boone on a hunting trip with his companions in frontier-era
Watauga county, North Carolina. Furthermore, Tompkins went to great lengths to
depict Daniel Boone with accuracy, such as the absence of a coonskin cap, an
accessory Boone never wore. This particular mural was
the only mural of the forty-three such murals in North Carolina to find its way
to northwestern North Carolina. Thus, the post office and
its artwork connected Boone with the larger world as a means of communication
while also remaining faithful to its history and character as it drew people
together and solidified their identity as a mountain people when they vocalized
and retained said identity in the midst of federal projects.
As the years passed by,
the post office became busier and busier, so by the 1970s, plans were being
made for a new post office. Yet, one of the arguments
for keeping the historic post office open was specifically the artwork from the
New Deal era.
This particular argument was one that enabled the post office to be study
listed in 1984, nominated to the national register in 1995, and placed on the
national register in 1996. It was not merely the
building that helped to form Boone’s identity; rather, it was the artwork
within the building that asserted and solidified their identity as a mountain
community within the national context of the New Deal era.