As America struggled to climb out of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt‘s administration explored ways to create jobs. One of these programs, The Treasury Section for Painting and Sculpture, employed artists to produce public art. Those public artworks included the mural “Rural Free Delivery” in the Goodland Post Office, 124 E. 11th Street.
This is the story of Rural Free Delivery and its namesake mural.
Rural Free Delivery begins
Originally, the postal service delivered all mail to post offices. Instead of visiting their mailbox, postal patrons had to visit their local post office. Visiting a post office often was a great burden to farmers, who often had to spend an entire day going to and from their post office.
In 1896, the Post Office Department experimented with Rural Free Delivery (RFD). Postal carriers started delivering mail to rural customers in parts of West Virginia Oct. 1, 1869. Because the Post Office’s experiment was successful, the Post Office established RFD in 1902. As inspectors established rural routes, RFD services spread throughout the country.
Although not technically RFD, Sherman County carriers began delivering mail in early 1902 to individual boxes on their routes between post offices. The carriers would deliver to anyone who was “not within the corporate limits of any town or within 80 rods (PDF) (440 yards) of any post office.” However, the post office did not require the carriers to pick up outgoing mail.
The Great Depression strangles the economy
Also by 1930, the economy was well into a tailspin. From 1929 on, the Great Depression took a stronger and stronger hold on the national and global economies. By 1933, around 15 million Americans were unemployed. Nearly half the banks had failed. Four thousand banks failed in 1933 alone. Every bank failure wiped out depositors’ assets. Those who had not closed their accounts before their banks failed lost their money.
‘A New Deal for the American People’
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) ran against incumbent President Herbert Hoover in the 1932 campaign. In a speech at the 1932 Democratic National Convention, he had promised a “New Deal for the American People”. FDR was elected in November 1932.
Reviving the economy by building post offices
Workers in the construction industry suffered greatly because of the economic downturn. Nearly one-third of the unemployed were in the building trades. In order to provide jobs, the New Deal put them to work on public buildings, including post offices. The Treasury Department funded three times more post offices than it had funded in the previous 50 years. The Treasury wanted to put workers on the job as fast as possible, while still maintaining high quality.
A new post office in Goodland
In 1935, Postmaster General James Farley and Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., chose to build a new post office in Goodland at 124 E. 11th St. A new post office meant an opportunity to hire an artist to create new art.
Artists have to eat, too
By installing art, the administration could reach three goals. They could reduce the unemployment rates by employing artists. Through the artists’ work, the administration could educate American citizens about their heritage and uplift their spirits. Even though Congress thought public art was a luxury, the administration persisted. Federal Emergency Relief Administration Director Harry Hopkins said, “Hell, they’ve got to eat just like other people.”
In 1934, Morgenthau created the Section of Painting and Sculpture program. The program was later named the Section of Fine Arts. Both were known as “The Section”. FDR said (PDF) the art was to be “native, human, eager and alive.” In order to avoid competing with private enterprise, the artists decorated government buildings. Federal building funds set aside one percent of the total cost per building for artworks.
A contract sets out the artist’s plan of work
Usually, The Section awarded commissions after a juried competition. In Goodland’s case, the Section simply awarded Kenneth Miller Adams the Goodland mural commission. The committee based the award on designs he had submitted for another competition. His contract specified (PDF) the mural’s size, 12 feet wide by 4 feet high, with “approximate dimensions of 48 square feet.” The contract also required the artist to pay for his materials and provide a full color preliminary sketch. After approval, the artist had to provide all the labor and materials required to create and later install the artwork. For all this, The Section contracted to pay Adams $985 in three installments. Adams signed the contract June 13, 1936.
From Topeka to Taos
Cubist painter Kenneth Miller Adams was born in Topeka Aug. 6, 1897. He was the final member of the Taos (N.M) Society of Artists, elected in 1929. He had moved to Taos in 1924, after studying in Chicago, New York City, Italy and France. In 1933, he was teaching art at the University of New Mexico in Taos when fellow New Mexican artist Gustave Baumann approached him about joining “The Section.”
On Dec. 22, 1933, the government offered him $42.40 a week, a “craftsman wage scale” (PDF). The amount included both wages and the cost of art supplies. He left the university and went to work for the government. Adams took the job because the government’s pay was more than he was being paid as an art professor.
Adams paints the Goodland mural
After Adams received the Goodland contract, he visited Goodland. He asked Goodland Postmaster Ed Elder to send him pictures of the area for inspiration. After the mural was complete, Paul Mixer of Goodland attached it to the wall with white lead and varnish March 22, 1937. Before installation, the mural measured 12 feet and an eighth inch by 4 feet, 3 inches. Adams had intended to attach it himself, but his wife’s illness prevented him from coming. In Class C and D post offices (PDF) like Goodland, the murals were usually hung above the Postmaster’s office. “Rural Free Delivery” followed suit.
The Section required the local Postmaster to confirm the work’s installation. In a March 30, 1937, letter (PDF),The Section’s Superintendent Edward B. Rowan quoted Elder’s letter about the mural. The installation “is very satisfactory in every respect,” Elder had said. The mural is “a very fine job of painting, and we have received a lot of very fine comment on it and also on the fine job of installing the same. …It is a handsome picture and meets with our approval in every respect.”
The mural shows ‘the delivery of mail to a Kansas farm’
Its 1989 National Historic Register nomination describes the mural. “‘Rural Free Delivery’ depicts the delivery of mail to a Kansas farm. A farm family gathers at the picket fence as the U.S. Mail Carrier rides up in his horse and buggy. … The figures are slightly blocky and cubist, with rough facial features and a heavy emphasis on facial shadowing.”
Adams visits Goodland
Later, on April 17, 1937, Adams told Rowan that he had traveled to Goodland after the mural’s installation. He was pleased with the work.
Rowan replied (PDF), “We are confident it [“Rural Free Delivery“] is an excellent piece of work.” He looked forward to seeing it himself. He gave Adams another piece of good news. Adams’ payment voucher had arrived in Rowan’s office. His office had submitted the voucher for payment.
Another ‘mural job’
Just over a month later, Adams received another letter (PDF) from the Treasury’s Procurement Division. The Section intended to find another “mural job” for him “as soon as they can find one close by.”
That “mural job (PDF)” was his last for The Section. He painted “Mountains and Yucca“, in the Deming, N.M., Post Office in late 1937. Usually the community and the artist would discuss the artwork, but Adams said he received no instruction from either Postmaster. As he told the Smithsonian Archive of American Art, “…Most of us [artists] would endeavor to develop our material … out of a regional motivation, either landscape or the activities of the particular community. I know both of mine were,” he said.
Adams and The Section part ways
The Section offered Adams a commission (PDF) in Seminole, Okla., but “he knew no more of [Seminole] than he did of Florida”. He refused it mainly because the pay would not cover his costs. Adams requested further work from The Section, but received no more.
He accepted a position as Artist in Residence at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. The position began in September 1938. Rowan congratulated Adams (PDF), calling the position a “signal honor.” The Carnegie Corporation of New York had commissioned Adams to paint murals in the university library (PDF). Rowan was “delighted” to learn the news. He continued, “The high quality of the work you have been doing is unquestioned by the members of this office.”
Creating ‘easel paintings’
Adams also painted “easel paintings” for The Section. Most memorably, he painted “Juan Duran” in 1934.
Rowan complimented Adams’ work. “I remember with great appreciation your fine portrait study of Juan Duran,” he wrote. The painting was hanging in the Labor Department, “where it is much admired.” The Department of Labor kept the painting in its offices for 30 years.
Adams painted at least one more (PDF) easel painting for The Section.
“1934: A New Deal for Artists”
Adams died in 1966. Two years before his death, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art acquired “Juan Duran“ from the Labor Department. In 2009, the museum featured the painting in its exhibition “1934: A New Deal for Artists“. The museum also included “Juan Duran” in the exhibit’s companion book. In 2016, Adams’ painting “Walpi” sold for $100,000 during the American Art Signature Auction at Heritage Auction Galleries, Dallas.
Iserman restores the mural
Goodland’s is still in place and in good condition. Marion Fred Iserman performed restoration work on the painting in July 1969. In its July 17, 1969, edition, The Sherman County Herald said Iserman would clean the mural and retouch it with paint and/or plaster as needed.
Listed on National Register of Historic Places
Partially due to “Rural Free Delivery”, Goodland Post Office was listed on National Register of Historic Places Oct. 17, 1989. Post Office Section Art, including Goodland’s, was named one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas Art finalists.
SavethePostOffice.com wants the post office to issue Section Art commemorative stamps.
View the mural at any time
The post office counter is open Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-4 p.m.; Saturday 9-10:30 a.m. Last mail collection is Monday-Saturday 12:45 p.m. Mountain Time. The counter is closed on federal holidays. Lobby is open around the clock, so visitors may examine the painting at any time.