Pony Express Map
On October 15, 1938, Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt unveiled “The Pony Express Map”, a mural by George Gray, for the Hotel Robidoux in the Crystal Ball Room. In speaking of the mural she said, “The real value of the historic painting will not be realized for some time as something as complete as this mural needs perspective to appreciate its true worth”. She loved the warmth of color used by the artist and pointed out it should be of great worth as a collection of data in studying the history of the pioneer group of the West. General James Leslie Kincaid, President of the American Hotels Corporation, of which Hotel Robidoux was a unit, was the father of the idea to make a permanent record in paint of the historic trails through the middle west. After becoming President of the American Hotels Corporation, he obtained the services of George Gray to depict military and civic history of the United States by the means of 233 murals placed in the chain of hotels.
Besides the Pony Express Trail, the mural shows the Oregon Trail, the California Trail, the Santa Fe Trail, Old Spanish Trail, the Northwest Passage of Lewis and Clark, the Butterfield Route and numerous other routes done by explorers to reach various points in the United States and Japan.
Mr. Gray explained the months of research required for every mural and the verification required for authenticity. On this mural he was assisted by Professor Frank S. Popplewell, an instructor at the St. Joseph Jr. College, and other historians in St. Joseph, MO, Columbia, MO, Washington, D.C. and Rochester, NY. In 1952 - 1954, I attended St. Joseph Jr. College and took every history course taught by Professor Popplewell. For one course, I was the only student and sat outside a classroom and took every test for the course under Professor Popplewell. I later received a B.A. from Arts and Science, majoring in History, from the University of Missouri.
Mr. Gray was also commissioned to paint 3 other murals for the Hotel, all of which decorated the walls of the Pony Bar’N at the Hotel Robidoux. The other murals were: The Platte Purchase Centennial, World War I Memorial, and Jeff Thompson Memorial.
In 1996, the Hotel Robidoux was blown up to make way for a new bank office building. Prior to the demolition of the hotel the murals had been moved to the new Holiday Inn. When the bank building was completed, “The Pony Express” mural was moved to the trust department of the Mercantile Bank (American National), today the U.S. Bank.
A mild controversy existed over ownership of the murals. Through the collaboration of Don Paden, Manager of The Holiday Inn, Bill Cole, President of the bank, and Sharon Evers, Vice President of the trust department, and with Dave Bahner’s later assistance, it was confirmed that ownership of the mural would be the Pony Express National Museum. Three of the murals are now exhibited at the Pony Express Museum. The fourth mural with the World War I theme is now in the Donnel Court Building.
In 1994, we learned the museum could get the mural if we could figure out how to get it out of the bank building. Five St. Joseph questers groups, headed by Jeanie Burnham and Peggy Iffert, stepped forward and agreed to restore the mural. The local questers raised $5,000 and that was matched by Questers International. During the last week of January, 1995, the mural was rolled onto a giant spool for its trip to the Pony Express Museum. The mural was stretched out in the newly dedicated Messick Gallery and the cleaning and repair was undertaken by Tom Duggins of the Frame Station. Imagine cleaning and repairing a 56 year old mural that had originally been a backdrop in a bar! Although there is no documentation, it was rumored that Eleanor Roosevelt would not unveil the mural in the bar. The local questers group paid for the total cost of restoration and reframing.
Rich Nolf, Director of the St. Joseph Museum, and his team of Jackie Lewin, David Mead, and Bonnie Watkins oversaw the total project. When it became apparent that the restoration was successful, a dedication was planned for April 2, 1995. The dedication was attended by Mayor Larry Stobbs, Congressman Pat Danner, and Kansas Governor Bill Graves.
A highlight of the dedication was the discovery that George Gray was located in New York and Bob Simpson volunteered to handle the expense and details of getting him here for the dedication. Less than three years later, George Gray would be honored on his 90th birthday by the National Arts Club for his murals. He was recognized for his years as the official artist of the United States Coast Guard and Chairman of the Coast Guard Art Program.
Photographs of the 1938 unveiling ceremony were gifted to our museum by Marshall White. This past year, Joseph Robidoux Questers # 1029, chaired by Ms. Marilyn Griggs, provided funds for framing these photographs. This gift allows us to tell the whole story of Eleanor Roosevelt’s visit to St. Joseph for the unveiling of George Gray’s mural, “The Pony Express Map”. This Questers group was also involved in the 1993 preservation of the original mural. It is interesting to note that Tom Duggins will frame the photos but he was also selected as the restorer and preservationist of this mural in 1993.