WPA-era art comes back to Elkhorn

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Margaret Plevak | October 30, 2013

ELKHORN — After his father, Tom Rost, died in 2004, Jon Rost of Plymouth, Wis., uncovered a portfolio of artwork that he'd never seen before in his dad's 70-year career as a commercial artist.

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Among the treasures Rost found was a pencil sketch of a 19th-century small-town setting. The drawing detailed a man who'd dismounted from his horse and was standing outside a public building, getting ready to distribute mail. Townspeople are gathering around him, anticipating letters.

Rost knew the drawing was one his father had submitted for a government-sponsored art program through the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The sketch was a precursor of a mural titled “Pioneer Postman” that Tom Rost had painted — and that's still hanging on a wall inside the Elkhorn Post Office.

As an artist, Indiana-born Tom Rost, who studied at the noted Layton School of Art in Milwaukee, created cover art and illustrations for Field and Stream, drew hunting cartoons for the Milwaukee Journal and drew maps for the military. And he created public murals in two states through the CCC.

During the depths of the Great Depression when more than 25 percent of Americans were unemployed, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the New Deal, a series of government-funded programs designed to get the national economy growing. Agencies like the CCC and the Works Progress Administration put people to work planting trees and constructing public buildings, parks and bridges. Carpenters, masons and engineers were employed, but so were artists, who ended up painting an estimated 1,500 murals like the ones Tom Rost did for post offices in Elkhorn; Lancaster, Wis.; and Paoli, Ind. 

Jon Rost remembers stories his father told about the time he spent in a CCC camp near Milwaukee.

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Did you know there's another post office mural in Walworth County? A 1940 oil painting by artist George Dietrich, titled "Winter Landscape" is on display at the Lake Geneva Post Office, located at 672 W. Main St. The painting depicts a stark, rural scene of snow-covered haystacks and farm fields.

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