The glory of the railroad era now stands on display in downtown Hillsdale, preserved in a mural completed in June.
The mural is the third in the Ladies Beautification League of Hillsdale’s Community Mural Project. It depicts an imagined scene from Hillsdale’s railroad era, a time when more than 20 passenger trains passed through the town each day, according to the league’s website. Now, the league hopes the mural will bring a little of that railroad-era excitement to modern downtown Hillsdale, and be another kind of benefit to the community.
“Great art brings people downtown to look, shop, eat, and explore,” Laura Smith, founding member of the Ladies Beautification League, said.
Artist Wes Hardin designed this mural to feature 10 portraits of individuals who have greatly impacted the community. This includes the city’s four “founding fathers” — Henry Waldron, Chauncey Ferris, John Potter Cook, and Charles T. Mitchell — who lean against the engine at the left of the painting. At the right of the mural are portraits of others who also contributed to the community, whether recently or in the past. By making a donation to the Hillsdale Community Mural Project, individuals could purchase these portraits on a first-come, first-serve basis, and then pick a face to have added to the wall.
Arlan Gilbert, retired history professor and Hillsdale College historian, sponsored a portrait of Ransom Dunn, the founder and first president of Hillsdale College. Gilbert said he thought Dunn naturally deserved a place on the mural because of how important the college has always been to the town. Other portraits include portrayals of a World War II fighter pilot and his “Rosie the Riveter” wife, a current resident and 55-year member of the Hillsdale Garden Club, and a farmer and strong mason who helped construct the Hillsdale Post Office.
The idea for the mural project was born five years ago in the aftermath of the economic downturn. A group of moms attended Michigan State University’s Small Town Design Initiative in Hillsdale in hopes of finding a way to help the struggling city recover. They decided on a mural project as a tangible way to unite the community and revitalize the downtown area. The first mural depicts springtime in Mrs. Stock’s Park circa 1920. The second is located at the Field of Dreams community park and features a historic baseball scene.
The project’s overarching purpose — and the mission of the league as a whole — is to honor the town’s history, encourage economic development, and bring members of the community together through the enhancement and beautification of the city.
The community has already rallied together as a result of this project when the town observed Train Mural Celebration Day on June 12, honking or waving as they passed Hardin throughout the painting process.
According to Smith, a once unremarkable cement wall is now “a spot of beauty, reminding those who pass it of our great historic past. It should inspire us all to get on board and love this city we call home.”