Plains Folk

Mystery Mural


The evidence is plain to see, but it’s contradictory and confusing. It’s right there on the wall, but it doesn’t make sense. I’m talking about the mystery mural in the New Rockford, North Dakota, post office.

The mural is a striking work of art. Its official history is contained in a nomination of North Dakota post offices to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. This document notes that three post offices built during the 1930s New Deal era are graced with murals done by artists funded by the federal government. In Langdon is a painting by Leo Beaulaurier depicting Indians confronting a wagon train scout. In Rugby is a mural by Kenneth Callahan featuring a map of the geographical center of North America with wheat and cattle scenes on either side. And in New Rockford is the mural, Advance Guard of the West, by Eduard Buk Ulreich. This is the mystery mural.

It is a mystery for several reasons. First, the title does not fit. The scene depicted is of a party of Dakota (so said Ulreich) warriors on horseback proceeding from right to left as you face the painting. The setting is shortgrass plains, with a buffalo skull in the foreground. The figures are highly stylized, somewhat reminiscent of flat style painting, but not quite. “Advance Guard of the West” connotes the advancing frontier of white settlement. These warriors appear to be, rather, the resistance to such settlement.

Moreover, I don’t think the consultants who wrote the 1989 nomination ever themselves viewed the New Rockford mural. They assert, on the basis of newspaper reports, that it was painted and installed by the artist Ulreich in 1939. Had they examined the painting, they would have noted a signature prominent on it: H. B. Bartron, 1961.

Now comes the grandson of H. B. Bartron, Don Bartron, himself an Oglala warrior and bundle keeper, a veteran Green Beret, to defend the honor of his itinerant artist grandfather. He says his grandfather Bartron, and not Ulreich, actually painted the mural in the 1930s and later returned to “touch it up” in 1961, hence the signature.

Years ago I wrote about this man Bartron and the murals he had painted in the cafĂ© in Drake, North Dakota. I referred to him as a “hobo,” which Don Bartron protests. The painter was not a hobo, but a traveling artist. He accompanied his wife Blanche, a circuit teacher, where she went to teach, and painted in the same vicinities.

There is other documentation as to the relationship of the painter Ulreich to the New Rockford mural. He evidently made two preliminary drawings for the work. One, which has gone into the hands of a private collector, is substantially the scene painted in New Rockford. The other is quite different. It is a party of riders depicted in similar style, but they are not Indians, but rather cowboys. This drawing now reposes in the Smithsonian.

So I’m pretty sure Ulreich had the federal commission to do the mural. I’m also pretty sure the one eventually installed in New Rockford was not supposed to be entitled “Advance Guard of the West;” that was to be the title of the cowboy mural, never executed. But what of the claims of Bartron and his grandson?

It is quite possible, it seems to me, that Ulreich, having made a preliminary drawing, subcontracted the actual painting work to Bartron, who was in the area. And here’s another piece of interesting evidence: Don Bartron says he has, in his possession, the feather headdress worn by the central warrior in the mural.

Perhaps someone in New Rockford can shed some light on this. And perhaps people in other communities know of other paintings done by the itinerant H. B. Bartron. I’d love to hear from anyone with knowledge on the subject. Otherwise, well, I’m content to live with a few unsolved mysteries on the prairies.

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