Town Magic

The Allure of Murals

Story and Photos by Drew Wahlin

In my decades of traveling through Idaho’s string of rural communities bordering the Snake River, I’ve always taken close notice of murals, because they constitute a canvas of residents’ lives.

Just like the Burma Shave signs along the old highways years ago, these paintings carry personal messages. Communities take great pride in them, placing them like flags in the centers of towns for all passersby to see. To me, these ephemeral forms of art are similar to those of the First Nation peoples, whose pictographs are etched on Idaho’s canyon walls and along the long ribbon of a river called the Snake. Because town murals represent life at the time they were made, I was led to wonder about the history of communities that have them, why the paintings were created, and by whom. I investigated a half-dozen of these treasures, almost hidden within the natural resources and beauty of southwestern Idaho’s rural communities. Representing just the tip of a magical kingdom, they’re a teaser of what awaits anyone who travels through such communities, which were settled in the nineteenth century by pioneers traveling the Oregon Trail. Like the wooden canvases on which most of these murals have been placed, the paintings themselves will eventually weather into shadows. The murals and the artists who placed them will be gone, which is why I think their stories should be told.

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