Stories from intrepid reporters attending the Illinois Press Foundation Journalism Workshop at Eastern Illinois University
(Video by Kristyna Kresic)
By Jackie Hart
Cindy Slack, secretary for the Arcola Record-Herald, is used to having strangers coming to the newsroom to purchase candy — giant candied apples, to be specific, similar to the ones that adorn a huge mural on the outside of her office.
Made to pay homage to the beloved village’s candy shop, which has since closed, the artwork leaves many visitors finding themselves inconvenienced by the tempting sweets so artfully painted. “I’ve even had people get angry when I tell them we have no candy. However, a majority of the time they’re just disappointed,” said Slack. While a majority of the murals in Arcola wouldn’t be considered false advertising, they are advertising for the town and the commemoration of what people most enjoy about it. “I think it’s awesome. Anything art wise, historical;it’s a high interest of mine… and I was in awe of how quickly and collectively they got together,” said Elizabeth Cottle, a local storekeeper. The town of Arcola has approximately 3,000 residents, and yet the pride of each one of those individuals shines through the 15 murals spread across town.
The murals, created by a group of artists called the Walldogs, celebrate the town’s history and the accomplishments of its residents.
“We wanted to have a tourist draw. At first we were thinking of a museum, but that would have been too much money over the long run, so when we came up with the idea of murals, they were also a great way to tell the story of the town,” said Bill Wagner, city administrator. The town spent roughly $80,000 to have the murals installed; all of the money raised through donations. The Arcola Beautification Committee raised the money in a little less than a year through fundraisers, sponsorships and grants.
The project lasted four days in June 2012, with 75 artists working to complete a total of 15 murals. “With the history in the town, it was like everyone had new ideas for a mural every day. It brought back a lot of good feelings,” said Wagner. The subjects of the murals include the Raggedy Ann doll, whose creator, Johnny Gruelle, was born in Arcola; the story of Joe Ernst, who fed Ella Fitzgerald’s black traveling group at a time when that was taboo; and the candy store and railroad. Each mural tells a story — a set of keys to unlock a few of the treasures of Arcola. While everyone who visits the town is sure to know about the annual broomcorn festival or the Amish community, the chance that they know the story of Barack Obama and the Lawn Rangers is slim to none. One day a group of men in Arcola got together and decided they were going to coordinate their lawn mowers in a dance for the broomcorn parade. The town really liked it and the men kept performing and eventually they were scheduled for parades across the state of Illinois. They were performing in Chicago, when then-Sen. Obama was watching them perform and happened to have a plunger handy. So he held it up and cheered for the Lawn Rangers. Fast forward a few years and Obama invited the Rangers to perform as part of his presidential inauguration parade, so as a tribute to Obama’s interest in the town, they painted him on the one of the murals, holding up his now-infamous toilet plunger. “Of all the great things they could have in that parade, they put in those goofy men,” Cottle said with a smile. “The craziest part was watching it at home when they flashed a sign across the television camera that said ‘Beautiful Arcola’ “I think they’re wonderful; I just get a kick out of them.”