The WPA Mural in Shakopee

by David R. Schleper

The Federal Art Project (FAP; 1935-1943) was a New Deal program to fund the visual arts in the United States. It was created not as a cultural activity but as a relief measure to employ artists and artisans to create murals, easel paintings, sculptures, graphic art, posters, photography, theatre scenic design, and arts and crafts. One of the WPA murals was painted in Shakopee 80 years ago.

The Federal Art Project was the visual arts arm of the Great Depression-era Works Progress Administration. Funded under the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935, it operated from Aug. 29, 1935 until June 30, 1943. It was created as a relief measure to employ artists and artisans, and 10,000 artist and craft workers sustained them during the Great Depression.

The project created more than 200,000 separate works, some of them remaining among the most significant pieces of public art in the country.

The Federal Art Project’s primary goals were to employ out-of-work artists and to provide art for non-federal municipal buildings and public spaces. Artists were paid $23.60 a week; tax-supported institutions such as schools, hospitals and public buildings paid only for materials. As many as 10,000 artists were commissioned to produce work for the WPA Federal Art Project.

In 1938, John Metcalf, Superintendent of the Shakopee Public School, asked the Federal Art Project of the WPA to do a mural. The mural was to be at the school library, and to show the history of Shakopee from 1842 until 1940. Muralist Harmon Arndt, a graduate of the Minneapolis School of Art, was employed to do the work.

Harmon met with several of the town’s leading citizens, the school board, high school students, and John Metcalf. After many meetings to discuss both the type of art work and the subjects and people to be portrayed in the mural, the work began. Three other artists assisted Arndt, who supervised the work. The classes of 1938, 1939, and 1940 donated funds to pay for the mural project.

The following is a brief description of the mural:

The first panel depicts Reverend Samuel W. Pond teaching a group of Dakota Indians the Christian word for God and the arts of white culture and civilization. He and his brother, Gideon, came to Minnesota as missionaries from Connecticut in 1834, and in the fall of 1847, Samuel, his wife, Cordelia Eggleston Pond, and their first three children came to the village of Tiŋta-otoŋwe, or Prairie Village. Samuel called it Prairieville, which later was called Shakopee. Although not in the picture, the Ponds took care of Jane Lamont Titus, who was half Dakota, and only spoke Dakota when moving in with them at age 13. The Dakota had been living in this area since the 1690s, first on the north side of Watpá Mnísota, which was later called the Rivière Saint-Pierre (St. Peter’s River), and finally the Minnesota River. Around 1839, the Dakota moved to the south side of the river, and the 600 Dakota Indians lived in tipi tanka, or bark lodges, during the summer months.

Also in the first panel, the first steamboat to churn the muddy waters of the Rivière Saint-Pierre (St. Peter’s River) in 1842 bears a party of pleasure-seekers to see the village of Tiŋta-otoŋwe and see Chief Ŝakpe II.

The second panel represents the laying out of the town site (even though a village of 600 Dakota Indians were already there for more than 150 years!) In the background is the tamarack log cabin/trading post of Oliver Faribault, who was ¼ Dakota Indian. One important missing piece is that Oliver’s wife, Wakan Yanke, was also there (though not in the picture). She was Dakota, and was born in the Minnesota Valley among her Dakota relatives, including Ŝakpe II. Another missing person was Joseph Godfrey, who was enslaved. Joseph helped build the cabin, and around 1847 he escaped, walking 40 miles along the St. Peter’s River to freedom.

Two other early settlers are also represented in the panel: Thomas A. Holmes holds a scroll which is a plan of the future town; and David L. Fuller looks through his surveyor’s transit. One person not in the picture was William Louis Bill Quinn, who met with Holmes at Fort Snelling in fall of 1851. Thomas discussed looking for a possible place for town sites. Holmes engaged Quinn as a guide and companion on an investigating tour. Bill, who was part Cree, knew several languages, including Dakota, English, French, and Ojibwe. He also knew places for possible towns along transportation routes provided by the Minnesota River and along with the numerous oxcart trails that crisscrossed the region. After they gathered supplies for one week of travel, Tom and Bill headed up the Minnesota River, and stopped just beyond Tiŋta-otoŋwe, Ŝakpe village. Tiŋta-otoŋwe was located between Sommerville Street to Shenandoah Drive, for about three miles south. Holmes liked the place, and determined that the area was perfect for establishing a trading post. Many Dakota Indians were about. Thomas called the place Holmes’s Landing, and it was here that he built a trading post with help from John MacKenzie and Benjamin Emerson Shumway.

The third panel shows the coming of the pioneers in their covered wagons. In the background are the tipi of the Dakota, the original settlers of this territory (though since it was a summer planting village, they lived in tipi tanka, or bark lodges, though a few tipi were around, also). The Dakota were forced off the land by land spectators and traders who made treaties, in which they often took advantage of the Dakota. The white population in 1852 consisted of about 20 families; the Indians numbered about 600. There were many Métis people here, and people spoke Dakota, French, and English.

The fourth panel pictures the buildings of early Shakopee. The grey building to the left is the Methodist Episcopal Church, erected in 1867. In the background the red building is the City Hall and Fire Department, erected in 1883. The brown building is the Union School located between Holmes and Lewis Streets on the south side of Fifth Avenue, which opened on Jan. 4, 1882. In 1908 the name Union was changed to Independent School District No. 1, and in 1957 District No. 1 was changed to District No. 720 and remains that today. Farther along the panel is a 1908 dock scene of the wharf on the Minnesota River. The boats would dock at the shore or the levee and throw out a gang plank. A swing bridge was built and the bridge swung around on its center pier. The picture shows white people, though there were other races in Shakopee, including Dakota and other Indians, African Americans and, just before the turn of the last century, Asian American also lived and worked here.

The fifth panel shows a Shakopee soldier leaving for the Civil War. Ho-Chunk Indian Charlie Menaige and other Dakota and Métis people also were involved in the Civil War, though they are not included in the mural. This panel also shows the first railroad train puffing into Shakopee on Nov. 11, 1865. Shortly after, a combination engine and passenger car named “The Shakopee” made regular trips between Shakopee and Mendota.

The firemen in this panel are shown fighting Shakopee’s first great fire which occurred in 1872, destroying the frame railroad shops of the St. Paul and Sioux City Railroad along with all the equipment and five locomotives. More than $100,000 of buildings and equipment was destroyed.

H. H. Strunk and Sons Drug Store and John Berens’s Grocery Store are represented in the sixth panel. White-bearded H. H. Strunk is standing at the left of the panel. Also in this same panel, seated in one of the earlier cars of the period, are Dr. and Mrs. H. W. Reiter. Dr. H. O. Smith, standing beside the car, is accepting one of the first telephones from Dr. H. W. Reiter. Dr. H. P. Fischer, wearing a brown tie, is standing on the other side of the car. John Berens is shown in the white apron. His son, Arthur, is carrying groceries. One interesting note is that the majority of German shop owners spoke German, in church and at the stores for almost 85 years, until 1940. Although this mural focuses mostly on men, women also lived and worked in Shakopee, including Dr. Lizette Schmitz Entrup, who delivered more babies than anyone in the area.

The seventh panel represent the 1909 Street Fair at which James J. Hill delivered an address to one of the largest gatherings Shakopee had ever entertained. The personalities in the panel of the Street Fair follow from left to right: Theodore Jaspers (the man with a hand in his pocket, a blacksmith by trade); Mrs. William F. Duffy (woman in the blue dress, active in women’s organizations such as the Book Lovers’ Club and League of Women Voters); Mrs. Leo Siebenaler (woman in brown dress) representing motherhood holds the hand of her daughter, Martha, mother of 16 children; Henry Hinds (man in gold suit, brown tie, with full beard, attorney and former owner of the Argus-Tribune, worked hard to get a school built and realized his dream when the Union School opened in 1882); Horace B. Strait (profile, man with full brown beard and navy blue suit, bank president and mayor at one time); David L. How (man with glasses and white beard, organized the Bank of Shakopee in 1865); Theodore Weiland (man with a full beard and blue suit, former bank president and chairman of the school board); Major McGrade (tall man in blue uniform, father of Mrs. Duffy); H. C. Schroeder (man with mustache and gold suit, former mayor of Shakopee and owner of Schroeder Brick Yard), even though Dakota Indians and Métis people, such as Minnie Josephine Otherday Weldon and Jane Lamont Titus, African Americans, such as servant Alice Briggs and farm worker Dan Eddings, and Asian Americans such as laundry worker Liu Kwong Kee are not included in the mural, even though they also lived in Shakopee at this time; Jacob Ries (man with the newspaper in his hand, founder of Rock Spring Bottling Works); Rev. Mathias Savs (clean-shaven pastor of St. Mark’s Catholic Church); Julius A. Coller II (little boy with ice cream cone, and later a prominent attorney in Shakopee); Julius A. Coller I (clean-shaven man talking to Mr. Hill, a former city attorney and bank president, played an important role in getting the Women’s Reformatory located in Shakopee); Elizabeth Ries (woman in green dress, was mayor and postmistress of Shakopee at one time – daughter of Jacob Ries); Colonel G. L. Nye (white bearded man in gold suit, also worked to get the Women’s Reformatory located in Shakopee and headed the foundry); James J. Hill (standing on the steps, full white beard, railroad builder and financier); H. J. Peck (man in gold suit and white beard, attorney); John P. Ring (sitting on the porch, brown suit, mustache, operated a cafe, was former mayor of Shakopee); and Eli Southworth shaking hands, sitting on the porch (the other man is just a figure), an attorney. In the background is the Davy Building. The mural does not show people with disabilities, though many people, such as Hopstina Makaakaniwankewin Black Flute Lucy Otherday, who was almost blind but used a walking stick to move around town, gathering food from the tinta, or prairie, including watercress at Faribault Springs; Francis Hirscher, who carved in butternut the altars at St. Mark’s Church, or Ida Gjerdrum Buck, who walked downtown with her seeing-eye dog, and who got a reading machine and was involved in the Book Club.

The eighth panel represents “modern” Shakopee in 1938-1939. In the background are the water tower, Rock Spring Bottling Works, St. Mark’s Church, the foundry, and Rahr Malting Plant. The new baseball stadium, Riverside Park, is also shown. The children to the left of the panel are students of the Shakopee Public Schools: Mary Ellen Metcalf wears an orange sweater; Charles Bowdish has red hair and wears a green shirt; Edward Pond wears a blue shirt and is the great-grandson of Gideon Pond; Joan Garvey holds a rose; and Dennis Dahlgren holds a softball. Other people left off of the mural include Samuel Ferdman, his wife, Anna, and their two children, Lucille and Max, probably the first Jewish families in Shakopee in 1933.

Standing by the tree in uniform is Arthur Lemmer, who was killed in World War I. The three men standing by the car are from left to right: Edward J. Sweeney, Superintendent of the Shakopee Public School from 1923-1936; Donald Childs, Scott County engineer and former school board member; and Ed Huber, cashier of the First National Bank and former school board member.

The girls in band uniforms are Dorothy Schroeder, carrying a clarinet and Carol Schumacher. Marion Heinen is the girl in the blue sweater on the bicycle. She is talking to Warren Stemmer, who is wearing a baseball uniform (Stemmer Field is named after him). Behind them is Rev. H. W. Schroeder, Dorothy’s father and pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church. Standing next to him is John Metcalf, superintendent of schools (father of Mary Ellen), who is carrying a briefcase. The graduates are Ruth Huber, daughter of Ed Huber, and Joseph Schaefer. Behind them is Father McRaith, pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church. Joseph Strunk, a druggist, is wearing a brown suit and has his head turned to the side. He is a grandson of H. H. Strunk. Paul Ries is wearing a white suit. He is a grandson of Jacob Ries. John Cavanaugh, mayor of Shakopee at the time, has his back to us. John Kline is taking a picture of the graduates.

Gertrude Siebenaler Roepke whose mother is Mrs. Leo Siebenaler, mother of 16 children, represents motherhood in the 1909 Street Fair mural. Marion Heinen Caron was one of the models.

The eight-panel mural is a great part of Shakopee’s history, and is located at the Central Family Center, in the area that used to be the library, and later was the band room. Although overlooking many women and people of color in the mural, the work was stunning. The building, located at 505 South Holmes Street, was originally the Union School, a kindergarten to high school school, an elementary school, a district office, and now the Central Family Center.

The Shakopee mural project was completed at a time when Americans were dealing with a difficult economy, not unlike today. In the midst of the Great Depression, the U.S. government created the Public Works of Art Project — the first federal government program to support the arts nationally, according to “Let’s Go: Markers in Time” by Richard Crawford at on June 2, 2012.

“It’s something quite unique and depicts Shakopee at the time, and I think it’s very important,” said Pat Ploumen, a member of the Shakopee Heritage Society. Even though the mural panels are located in a public space, not all residents are aware of it.

Shakopee Heritage Society is a volunteer organization that focuses on promoting the history of Shakopee. For more information, or to join, please contact The Shakopee Heritage Society also works with the Scott County Historical Society, which focuses on all of the cities in Scott County, including Shakopee.

“Most people don’t even know about it, I would guess,” Ploumen said. “It wasn’t until I retired and became active in the heritage society that I would learn about it.”

While dozens of WPA art projects were completed at public buildings throughout the state, the Shakopee murals are apparently the only WPA-era art project in Scott County.

Kathleen Klehr, executive director of the Scott County Historical Society, called the murals “a marker in time.”

“Any community would want to preserve something that’s going to tell the history of their community,” Klehr said. “And it’s particularly important to preserve it because it’s so rare.”

(Much of this information is from Gertrude Siebenaler Roepke. Much of the information is from The Shakopee Story by Julius Coller II, with further references from David R. Schleper and the Shakopee Heritage Society at An article called “Let’s Go: Markers in Time” by Richard Crawford at on June 2, 2012 was also used.)

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