The Ottumwa Courier

April 15, 2013

A Grant Wood mystery

By MARK NEWMAN Courier staff writer
Ottumwa Courier

ELDON — The people of Eldon may have found a sister city through a common trait: A connection to Grant Wood.

A small group from Council Bluffs was in Wapello County on Sunday, talking to a crowd at the Eldon Public Library about the search for a Grant Wood mural.

The Chieftain Hotel of Council Bluffs no longer houses old-fashioned businessmen in their freshly pressed topcoats. But it does sit at the center of a mystery about artist Grant Wood. And the people who have the American Gothic House in their backyard were fascinated.

“It’s a tie-in for us,” said Nancy Teubel, an art enthusiast who moved from Eldon to Fairfield several years ago. “Sometimes, it feels as though the corners of the state are not connected.”

She said Grant Wood is a subject she loves to learn more about.

Holly Berg, administrator of the American Gothic House Center, said they and the Ottumwa Area Arts Council are always looking for interesting connections to share about Grant Wood.

“Council Bluffs was kind of a missing piece of the puzzle,” Berg said. “Years ago, Eldon was like that, too. It’s interesting to see how they’ve developed [their Grant Wood] connection.”

In the 1970s, the new owners of the Chieftain, a retirement home company, decided they couldn’t spend $100,000 to remove and preserve an important “corn room” mural by Wood. So they allowed the public to bring sharp objects to cut away pieces of the mural. And the public took them up on the offer. The mural was cut into an unknown number of pieces and was dispersed across an unknown geographical area, gone, seemingly, forever.

Until some caring, persistent and creative history buffs at the Council Bluffs Council for the Arts decided that the single piece of the mural they owned would look a lot better with the rest of the Wood painting around it. Their investigation started years ago and is still ongoing.

Laural Ronk, executive director of the Council Bluffs art council, agreed the search for Grant Wood artifacts has become a sort of detective work. She and Dick Miller, chair of the Grant Wood Conservation and Special Projects, have run into different kinds of people, they told the group in Eldon, and shared some of the stories of their persistence: The lawyer who had a fragment of the mural hanging in his bathroom, the realtor who wants $10,000 for her fragment but has had no takers and the banker who, after talking with the group over a period of time, said he realized history would be better served if the Council Bluffs group had his fragment.

“Ernie Buresh… never told me no. But he never said yes, either,” Miller said. “One day he told us, ‘You deserve it more than I do.’”

Since that time, he let the project leaders take his large fragment of the mural and has become a friend to the Council Bluff’s Art Council and the Grant Wood Conservation group.

The mural is coming together, and the portion that has been restored hangs in the county courthouse.

The group has made another friend, too, they said: The staff of the local newspaper, The Daily Nonpareil of Council Bluffs. Miller and Ronk said the paper was, and still is, enthusiastically supportive of the project to put the “lost” mural back on a wall in their town. People reading the articles have sent thousands of dollars in support, and word has got around about the search for pieces of their giant puzzle.

Ronk said besides the obvious places like Iowa and Nebraska, they’ve received fragments of the mural from Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. They just got a call from a donor in South Dakota.

Miller isn’t shy about talking to people, especially about Grant Wood, said Ronk. And that friendly, talkative nature may be another reason for the group’s success. Miller asked the current owners of the Chieftain Hotel building if they could come poke around.

The owners agreed. Talking to current residents of what is now a retirement home, the preservation volunteers learned of “some things you should see.”

When they climbed up into the drop ceiling, they discovered 46 feet of poetry hand painted by Grant Wood. The New York Times covered the discovery.

“It’s exciting learning about Grant Wood’s connection to another part of Iowa,” said Teubel.