A quick stroll around downtown Elgin will reveal several artistic gems that mirror the diverse and rich history of the town itself – including a variety of ghost signs. Also known as fading ads or brick ads, ghost signs are the old and usually fading advertisement painted on what are or were exterior walls.
Vibrant murals from local and national artists adorn the outside walls of many of Elgin’s over 100-year-old buildings, while visitors who step inside several local businesses will discover ghost murals going back to a time when advertisements were artwork painted on the side of buildings for all to see.
Starting your tour at the Elgin Post Office will offer up one of the oldest of downtown Elgin’s mural collection, a 1940-piece titled Texas Farm by Julius Woeltz. Hanging above the left-hand wall when entering the building from the front, the piece was commissioned by New Deal funding as part of the Work Progress Administration’s (WPA) Federal Art Project and was one of several pieces Woeltz created that are featured in public buildings in Texas.
The mural features several farming scenes, crops, structures, and animals in colors reminiscent of the American Southwest. Other works commissioned by Woeltz during the WPA era include murals featured in post offices in Amarillo, Texas, and Benton, Arkansas.
Just a block south of the Post Office, a mural showcases the Texas Horned Lizard. Painted on the back side of the building at 116 Depot Street, this scene beautifully captures a Texas landscape complete with cacti, a chapparal, rolling hills, flowers and our lizard friend keeping close watch over his domain.
The mural has served as a backdrop for several local events, such as pop-up sales and the Luna Market, a makers’ fair held several times a year by a group of local women artists.
In creating this mural with artist William Montgomery, muralist and sign painter Sarah Blankenship preserved the ghost sign at the top of the building that advertised Ford’s Furniture. The east side of this building has another ghost sign for the same business.
Next up, the Star Tobacco Ghost Sign is at 109 South Avenue C, on the side of Margo Sawyer’s art studio. Artists Ashley and Kyle Smith restored the image to its former glory in 2021, over 100 years after the image first appeared. Hand-painted just as the original was, this Star Tobacco mural may be the last fully intact of its kind. The vivid colors are what you would have seen in the early 1900’s.
Turning around and taking a quick hop across the street will bring you to another lively mural by a local artist. Tom Besson’s Immigrant Nation Mural leaps off the wall at 200 Depot Street and was a gift to the Elgin community in many ways.
Besson wanted to create a piece to celebrate the many cultural influences and the contributions immigrants have made to Elgin throughout its history. He completed the project without payment and donated it as a gift to the community.
The Black Icons Mural was painted by artist Jeremy Biggers with Stem and Thorn in December of 2022 for the Elgin Sesquicentennial. The mural is located on the historically segregated south side of the tracks at the corner of Main Street and Central Avenue. It showcases civil rights leader Harvey Westbrook, educator Annie Lee Haywood, business owners and community leaders S.H. McShan and Dororthy McCarther, and musician Monty Joe Thomas, with a plaque telling the story of how each contributed to Elgin.
The Dry Goods ghost mural located at 20 North Main Street inspired the name of today’s Elgin Dry Goods, a shop that features locally made and hand-crafted jewelry, soaps, coffees, books, old fashioned candy, and Consuela. The mural was lightly whitewashed a few years ago to enhance its visibility.
Lastly, The Owl Cigar Mural is the largest ghost mural in downtown Elgin. Located inside The Owl Wine Bar & Home Goods Store at 106 North Main, the mural spans more than 50 feet and was originally part of an alleyway. It was hidden for more than 90 years until 1990 when a film company shooting the television movie In Broad Daylight revealed the historic artwork. The shop found its name when the ghost sign was revealed. It is so well preserved, it looks brand new; so, the wall has been cleaned but not painted.
These are the most prominent pieces of public art in the downtown Elgin community, but there are hidden gems around just about every corner – and through every doorstep. Entering The Elgin Courier reveals another hidden gem painted to celebrate our town’s history.
So then what’s the “mural” of this story? Keep your eyes open! You never know what you might miss.