Post office mural holds history
By Sandy Bond
If a picture is worth a thousand words, the six-foot by 12-foot oil on canvas mural on the north wall of the lobby of the Mobridge Post Office, “Return From The Fields” by Elof Wedin, speaks volumes.
Dakota bluffs comprise the backdrop, and the muted images transport us back in time to a gentler era. You can hear the muffled footfalls of the big roan draft horse and the jangle of the harness as he is driven home at day’s end by a mustached man in indigo jeans and red work shirt. A woven picnic basket which transported the noon meal is carried by a young woman who is accompanied by her husband, carrying a scythe; a middle aged woman carries a salt glazed stoneware water jug, and a young boy leads the procession with the family’s yellow farm dog, three generations of a South Dakota farm family. The faces register a degree of weariness mixed with pride for a job well done.
Located directly above the postmaster’s door, it sometimes goes unnoticed, and up until the mid 1980’s, little was known about the painting. A representative of the United States General Services Administration wrote to Mobridge asking for up-to-date information on the famous Oscar Howe murals in the City Auditorium for the National Fine Arts Inventory. Peg Wunder, past president of the Oahe Area Arts Council and an artist in her own right, answered the General Services Administration letter and soon received another letter telling her a little about the mural in the post office and shared it with The Mobridge Tribune and Klein Museum curator Diane Kindt.
Born in Sweden, Elof Wedin immigrated to the Minneapolis and Saint Paul area in 1919. He supported himself as a boilermaker by day and attended the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in the evening. He later attended the School of Art Institute in Chicago.
During the Great Depression, he was commissioned to do several works for the Federal Works Project Administration and two post office murals through commissions under the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture (The Section of Fine Arts). Established in 1934, it was administered through the Procurement Division of the Treasury Department.
“The Section” was part of the array of public works projects established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in response to the economic crisis. As a part of the New Deal Program, the projects provided work for millions of those who were unemployed. The murals and sculpture decorated post offices built during the New Deal era which included the Mobridge Post Office built in 1938. Over 1,000 newly constructed post offices received murals.
Wedin was selected to paint the Mobridge mural after winning an open, anonymous competition held by the Treasury Section of Fine Art through the 48 States competition designed to provide a mural for each new post office in the country. He also did one in Litchfield, Minnesota. Artists were not required but encouraged to visit to visit the area that they would portray in their paintings. As the stipends were minimal, sometimes travel was not possible. Artists would research the area, sometimes through correspondence with local residents of note including local officials and postmasters. Wedin went on to a successful art career in Minneapolis area.
The next time you have business at the Mobridge Post office, remember to look up. There is a piece of historical art right here that guarantees to take you back in time.