Filed Under Architecture

A Typical Western Town Mural

Helper, Utah

Jenne Magafan painted A Typical Western Town from 1939-1941 under the Treasury Section of Fine Arts, a New Deal project that aimed to employ artists and craft an American arts culture. Magafan installed the painting in the Helper, Utah, Main Post Office, where visitors can still see it today.  

In 1941, New Deal-era artist Jenne Magafan of Colorado completed her mural, A Typical Western Town, in the Helper, Utah, Main Post Office. The post office building opened in 1938 and was placed by researchers on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. With its initial installment, A Typical Western Town was the first post office mural that Utah received with funding from the Section of Fine Arts.

Magafan won the chance to install the oil-on-canvas mural through the Forty-Eight State competition as a part of the Treasury Section of Fine Arts. A well-known painter of the New Deal era who studied in a variety of institutions like the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center, Magafan practiced art with the mentorship of artists including Frank Mechau. The Section of Fine arts also commissioned Magafan for Post Office murals in Anson, Texas, and Glenwood Springs, Colorado. After completing the Helper mural, Magafan and her twin sister and fellow artist, Ethel, hung the painting over the postmaster’s office door.  

Magafan reflects the later nineteenth-century commotion of Helper’s industrial history in her mural riddled with motion. Helper, located in central Utah, was uniquely named after the additional locomotives that trains needed to ascend Soldier Summit, located between Helper and Salt Lake City, Utah. Helper once bustled as an activity center for many surrounding coal mining towns. Indeed, the history of coal mining in Carbon County is significant as it was crucial to the state’s economic development. Helper especially transformed into an economic hub after the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad’s completed its Castle Valley branch in 1883. Geologists discovered rich coal deposits in nearby Sunnyside along the path to Soldier Summit by Price Canyon, further cementing Carbon County as the coal mining center of Utah.

The five feet by twelve feet mural depicts a usual western town, likely during the bustling heights of Carbon County’s coal industry during the later nineteenth-century. In the central foreground, two men on horseback come to a stop as a curious dog barks at them. To the right, a “Blacksmith” sign stands above the shop’s worker, who appears to be repairing a wagon wheel. The left side includes a group of people conversing and a woman as she approaches a post office and grocery store. A saloon is placed next to the office. The background includes a wide blue sky. The focus is dedicated to the bustling and optimistic happenings of the town. Unlike other typical TSFA murals, A Typical Western Town does not feature specific natural landscapes. Rather, the lively, populated town that the work exhibits could reflect the thriving industrial history of Helper. 

Images

A Typical Western Town
A Typical Western Town Magafan’s Western Town, captured above, was featured in the Special Delivery: Murals for the New Dealexhibition From January 15th to September 11th, 1992 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The exhibit included various New Deal-era artworks created through the era’s mission to employ artists and establish new American art culture for local communities.   Source: Magafan, Jenne. Western Town (mural study, Helper, Utah Post Office). July 26, 2011. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Western_Town_(mural_study,_Helper,_Utah_Post_Office).jpg
Jenne Magafan and Her Work
Jenne Magafan and Her Work This March 2, 1975, article in the Kingston, New York, Kingston Daily Freeman reflects on Jenne Magafan's distinctive work that she created until her death in 1952.  Photographed on the upper left, she was known for her art that depicted familiar scenes, such as the lively Typical Western Town.   Source: “A Strong Personal Force Stamps the Warm Work of the Late Jenne Magafan.” Kingston Daily Freeman. March 2, 1975.
The Post Office in Helper
The Post Office in Helper The Helper Main Post Office captured in this 2009 photo first opened in 1938. Today, the mural hangs above the postmaster’s office door.  Source: Simpson, Tricia. Post Office Helper Utah. April 11, 2009. Via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Post_office_Helper_Utah.jpeg
Announcement of Mural
Announcement of Mural This June 29, 1939, headline in The Helper Journal displays the excitement around Magafan's new Helper mural. Before the completion of two other post office murals in Provo and Beaver, Western Town was the only Utah post office mural funded by the Treasury Section of Fine Arts.  Source: “Helper Post Office to Get Mural, Only One in Utah.” Helper Journal. June 29, 1939.

Location

Metadata

Lindsey Cillis, Northern Arizona University, “A Typical Western Town Mural,” Intermountain Histories, accessed May 20, 2024, https://www.intermountainhistories.org/items/show/716.