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.
“It was kind of a rough and tumble group of young guys who were probably straight off the farm and away from home for the first time,” Rost said. “My father said it was kind of a melting pot of interesting types.
“The others in the camp referred to him and his co-workers as artists, and would make comments like, ‘Hey, artist, are you going to paint me something?’ I wouldn’t call it resentment, but they were working hard and he was not even breaking a sweat. He wasn’t swinging a sledgehammer or a pickax, doing all this rough work, but rather sitting off to the side making sketches. I think he felt a little bit out of his element. Still, others were quick to appreciate his talents. He’d barter, doing a pencil sketch in exchange for extra rations.”
Jon Rost framed several pieces of the artwork from his father’s portfolio, including the sketch for “Pioneer Postman.”
“We celebrated my father’s life with a retrospective of his art,” Rost said. “We hung them in a little gallery in our family room.”
Rost enjoyed looking at his father’s pencil sketch hanging on the wall, but he knew its permanent home should be back in Elkhorn, so he contacted both the Elkhorn Post Office and the Walworth County Historical Society about donating the artwork.
Elkhorn Postmaster Karen Babcock has long appreciated Tom Rost’s mural, which has been hanging over an interior doorway since 1938 — two years after the post office was built.
The Elkhorn Post Office, designed in a streamlined style called Art Moderne, was itself a WPA project that’s now on the National Register of Historic Places.
The mural has drawn attention from post office customers, whether they’re waiting in line or come in specifically to view it, Babcock said. She’s even done a little research on the WPA projects for a Colorado man who stopped at the post office, wanting to know if a particular city in his state also had a mural.
To Babcock, “Pioneer Postman” is a reminder of what mail used to mean long before the arrival of the Internet.
“It was a whole different era then and it reminds me of that anticipation of what the postman brought,” she said. “There wasn’t a daily delivery back then, so it was special, and I still get that feeling, looking at the mural.”
Mail was a vital connection for people, because it provided a way for immigrants or migrating settlers to stay in touch with distant family members. Sometimes it took months to hear from the people they left behind, said Walworth County historian Doris Reinke, who added she still appreciates receiving letters.
In the county’s earliest days, the local post office could be found in a tavern or grocery store.
“We even heard of one that was in somebody’s kitchen,” Reinke said.
“Before there was home mail delivery, people addressing a letter would simply write ‘Mrs. Johnson in Elkhorn, Wisconsin’ on the envelope,” she said. “A lot of the streets in communities weren’t even named and the houses didn’t have numbers — they didn’t need them.”
She’s heard accounts of families who would send their children to pick up the mail — although some postmasters would only give the mail to children on their way home from school so that letters wouldn’t get lost, she said, chuckling.
Reinke said Elkhorn’s first post office was in an old hotel, located on what’s now Wisconsin Street, near the site of Moy’s Chinese Restaurant.
Residents would periodically come downtown to get their mail, or, Reinke said, if they were in a hurry, they’d try to figure out exactly when the mail would arrive. Local mail went to Racine before being sent to Spring Prairie, where a mail carrier would pick it up and take it to Elkhorn on horseback — much like the scene in “Pioneer Postman.”
“I think the sketch evokes a slightly romanticized view of a bygone era,” said Jon Rost. “It has a little bit of melancholy to it, since the subject matter was already of a bygone era by 1938, when it was painted. It harkened back to a simpler time of horses and plows and buggies. For me that sketch is a double remembrance, not only of when my father was engaged in creating this piece of art, but also of a simpler, less stressful, though romanticized time.
“I think both my father and my mom were very proud of the murals. They actually traveled to Paoli, Indiana, on the anniversary of the installation of the mural there, which was restored.”
Rost is proud of his father, too, noting that one of his dad’s WPA paintings was purchased by Eleanor Roosevelt and hung in the White House.
Babcock and Reinke decided the best home for Tom Rost’s pencil sketch of “Pioneer Postman” would be at the historical society, and it will be available for public viewing in the society’s new home, Heritage Hall, scheduled to officially open next spring.
Reinke said the society has acquired artifacts from two early county post offices. One is a desk with slots in it for mail from Williams Bay. The other is a collection of postal items from the former community of Peck’s Station, north of Elkhorn.
The sketch, she said, will look right at home in its new setting.
“We’ll probably put it in our new building with one of the post offices,” Reinke said. “It will hang there with some of the letters that just had names on them — no addresses — and a two-cent stamp.”