For years, members at the American Legion in Stillwater mused over what became of the lost art murals that Post 48 had commissioned a famed local artist to paint decades ago.
Nearly all of the murals, which were by the late artist Jo Lutz Rollins and depicted scenes of military conflict, were missing, save for one. It wasn't until recently, when Brent Banchy cleaned the post's old, labyrinthine basement, that he found nine more of the rare murals.
"It's not King Tut's Tomb, but it's Stillwater's version of it," said Banchy, the Legion's finance officer, as he stood in the basement last week.
Post 48 Commander Tony Robey calls the find "uplifting" and significant for the area.
And local history buffs, including writer Anita Buck, author of a book on Jo Lutz Rollins and the Stillwater Art Colony, have been excited -- if not downright giddy -- about the find.
Rollins played a significant role in the Minnesota arts community for 65 years as founder of the Stillwater Arts Colony, a University of Minnesota professor and gallery operator.
Her husband was a Legionnaire in Stillwater, where the post first opened in 1944 at 103 S. Third St. A bar operated in the basement until 22 years ago.
In one dark basement room, behind boxes of old pulltabs on metal shelves, Banchy recently spotted pieces of dark brown fiberboard. Each four feet tall, they're painted with yellow strokes in sketch-like scenes from WWI, WWII and the Korean conflict.
In all, there are 10 murals, most with three or four panels. Some are eight- or 12-foot long in one continuous panel, more than 100 lineal feet of fiberboard.
"I looked at them and immediately knew there was important historical significance," Banchy said.
Now, he and other Legionnaires are inviting the public to come see them.
"We have art by the yard," Banchy said, laughing. "You just don't find gigantic murals laying around by a nationally known artist, so we're excited about this and presenting them to the public."
The murals celebrate the community's military history, unbroken since the Civil War.
"They bring to life those important military actions that the citizens of Stillwater and the region were part of; it keeps the history alive," said Brent Peterson, executive director of the Washington County Historical Society.
"You breathe history here. Those wars changed the way the country was going. And it's the people who are here that helped turn the tide."
First were painted in 1946
Rollins was commissioned by the Legion in 1946 to paint the murals for the clubrooms of Post 48, depicting aspects of WW1 and WWII. In 1954, after the Korean conflict, she added three more panels, recreating battles,
"It's just like lost art, and the general public has never seen them," said Bob Hart, a former post commander who is preparing the free exhibit.
One big panel, still in the storage room last week, depicts the amphibious landing at Inchon on the west coast of Korea. It was a key strategic victory by Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
More "excavated" panels show other wartime scenes, including Paris during WWII, with the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower.
Last week, WWII veteran Milt Guion got his first peek at the panels and said he recognized scenes, from those in Paris to examples of Americana, including WWII cartoon soldiers Willie and Joe by cartoonist Bill Mauldin.
"It's the culture of those people's lives at the time," said Mark Balay of the Washington County Historical Society as he viewed the murals, too.
Guion, 86, landed at Normandy in northwest France during the liberating invasions by Allied forces in June 1944. He gazed at a mural of the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Navy Yard and recalled when he sailed home and saw the statue.
Those at the Legion said they hope the murals will be a way to bring in new guests, whom they hope will keep coming back and get to know members.
"The legacy that's supported by these murals," Hart said, "helps the public to understand the roles of the veterans in time of conflict, but also in time of peace."
Joy Powell • 651-925-5038