I don't know if the New Deal-era mural on a wall at Belmont City Hall is a great piece of art.
But I love it.
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The huge oil-on-canvas painting shows local hero William Chronicle gathering his “South Fork Boys” before they rode off to fight at the Revolutionary War Battle of Kings Mountain on Oct. 7, 1780.
It's a stylized image from legendary times, linking Belmont to one of the great successes of the American Revolution. The painting itself is part of history – what I think of as a great art exhibit housed not under one roof, but in public buildings scattered all over the U.S.
Much New Deal art has been lost. Murals have been painted over, neglected or scrapped altogether when an old building was torn down.
For years, I've worried about the condition of Belmont's mural. As far as I could tell from talking to folks, it hadn't been cared for since it went up in 1940.
Other New Deal murals around the region have fared better.
The mural “Cotton Field and Spinning Mill” in Gastonia's downtown post office got a facelift in 1995. The “Threshing Grain” mural at the Lincolnton post office was restored in 2005.
The mural at the Kings Mountain City Hall is in good shape.
My hope was that eventually somebody would come to bat for Belmont's painting.
Bob Brown, president of the Belmont Historical Society, recently took up the cause. He made a pitch to the City Council to pay for restoration of the mural. Leaders approved the project, which cost about $6,000.
With the help of the Mint Museum in Charlotte, Brown found Craig Crawford, a Columbia art restoration expert who spent a week working on the painting. Layers of coal dust and oil grime were removed. (City Hall was once heated by coal, and later, oil burners.)
Slowly, the old image took on new life. Vibrant colors returned. Now, the mural looks like the artist had just installed it on the wall.
I found a new book at the Gaston County Library the other day: “The New Deal: A 75th Anniversary Celebration.”
Mostly, it's a picture book and includes several of the post office murals around the country.
Artists were commissioned by federal programs such as the Works Progress Administration – Franklin Roosevelt's legendary WPA – to create work during the Great Depression.
New Deal art author Kathryn Flynn of Santa Fe, N.M., told me that artists worked closely with communities to create the kind of images local people wanted.
“It was something that had never happened on this scale,” said Flynn, who is executive director of the National New Deal Preservation Association.
A young artist named Peter DeAnna was commissioned to do Belmont's mural.
Local folks wanted him to paint something that depicted Maj. William Chronicle and the “South Fork Boys” before the Kings Mountain battle.
The major was well-known in the land between the South Fork and Catawba rivers. He was a planter, leader and soldier who died fighting Loyalists on the slopes of Kings Mountain.
Chronicle's original homeplace once stood just a few blocks from where the mural would go up. And his name also went on the city's first textile plant – built near the homesite in 1902 by pioneer industrialist R.L. Stowe.
Historical society co-founder Jack Page remembers going to the new post office with his parents as a child.
“They called my attention to the mural,” he said. “I wasn't that impressed. It was just some men standing around with a horse.”
Later, he would come to appreciate the painting.
DeAnna earned $730 for his work in Belmont, according to Dallan Wordekemper, federal preservation officer with the U.S. Postal Service.
Not much is known about DeAnna.
A few biographical threads turned up in a 1972 inventory of the Belmont project.
Wordekemper explained that the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970 created the U.S. Postal Service, and that the inventory was a result of the reorganization plan.
George Shealy, head of the art department at Queens College, did the inventory, which included a few notes about the artist.
“Many residents remember the artists, but each memory varies,” Shealy wrote. “Some said he was Italian, some said Spanish. Mrs. Bass, the assistant postmaster he lived with while doing the work, said he was French. His age ranged from 17 (Mrs. Bass) to 21 by others. Apparently he was popular with the local people, who took him on fishing trips. The work was surprisingly good for a young man.”
Bob Brown heard that about 25 years ago members of DeAnna's family stopped at the Charlotte airport and made a quick trip to Belmont to see their relative's artwork.
Stories like that are floating around, and Brown is chasing them. He hopes someday to do a full biography of the artist who created Belmont's mural.
Symbol of change
The folks in Belmont's historical group have vision.
The organization has come up with a first-time event called “South Fork Colonial Days: Echoes of Our Past” on Oct. 25 and 26.
This festival will focus on everything from lifestyles and music to battles and historical people such as Maj. Chronicle.
In Belmont's Stowe Park on Main Street, re-enactors will stage the battles of Kings Mountain and Charlotte.
It's fun stuff, but also a chance to learn about the region – an opportunity newcomers should find particularly inviting.
Maybe at next year's festival, the historical society can sell reproductions of the restored mural. As an example of New Deal postal art, it's a gem. But the image can also stand as a powerful symbol of all the change that's occurred and is still taking place in the land between the two rivers.