Murray Bishoff: The story behind the picture

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Controversy erupted this week over Monett Main Street’s mural being painted by Raine Clotfelter at the new Fifth Street parking lot, as Viga Hall gave us all a history lesson into Monett’s past.

The problem is the choice of the diesel locomotive No. 2019, “The Cavalcade,” for the mural. According to Frisco records, the Cavalcade, named after the 1934 Kentucky Derby winner, went into service in 1950. If the purpose of the mural is a salute to Old Monett, Viga Hall argues it was the steam engine around which Monett was built in its formative years, not the diesel. Monett’s roundhouse was built to service the steam engine.

For the first 50 years of Monett’s existence, the pivotal years largely represented in the mural, there were no diesel locomotives here.

Hall’s father, longtime Monett mayor V.B. Hall, learned of the introduction of the diesel locomotives about the time World War II was ending during a visit to Springfield. As the nation’s resources switched from warfare to commerce, the railroad planned to introduce the new technology in a new generation of locomotives. What Hall quickly grasped was that it meant the diesel roundhouse’s maintenance would be in Springfield. Monett’s roundhouse would be obsolete. Monett’s original reason for existence would be gone.

Mayor Hall shared what he had learned, and Monett’s business leaders set off to find a new industrial base for Monett’s economy. By the time the Frisco’s streamlined passenger trains pulled by diesel locomotives began running through the Monett yard, it was 70 years ago. In May 1948, the Vaisey-Bristol Shoe Company was making Jumping-Jacks shoes, and the Producers Creamery dairy plant on Front Street had opened. Several years of hard work established a beachhead for the Monett’s industrial future.

So yes, Viga Hall is right in that the mural does not celebrate Monett’s railroad past in the right way. It’s also true that the diesel locomotives were much prettier and more colorful than the steam engines, a more picturesque model for a mural. If a train’s a train, mural planners feel satisfied that diesel locomotives represent a real part of Monett’s history. The Cavalcade ran through here. Its image still legitimately represents a period of Monett’s history, and by its technology, obviously does not represent the town’s early days.

On the other hand, the diesel locomotive was a harbinger of change. Its image on the mural is a blaring declaration to all who understand that it bookmarks Monett’s history. For 60 years, Monett was a thriving, industrious railroad town. Then, the railroad changed, and so did Monett.

If the mural remains unchanged — and by all indications it will — those who are in the know need to recognize the diesel locomotive in it for its true role in history. It meant the end of Monett’s roundhouse. By that time, the Harvey House on the corner of the mural was already gone for 35 years, and the old YMCA had also disappeared during the war.

Images of Monett come and go, and Monett goes on. That’s what the mural tells us. Monett only became what it is today because it moved on. No one set of images will tell the whole story. This mural is not the last word on Monett’s steam engine railroad legacy, nor does it begin to address what came next. Just look at the mural in the post office. One would hardly recognize farm produce, chickens and the railroad track as the Monett we know today. There is so much more to tell.

So it is with this mural. Heed Viga Hall’s remonstration. That diesel engine pained Monett, but helped the town to grow indirectly, forcing rebirth like the butterfly struggles to break out of its cocoon. With heavy labor and industriousness, Monett still stayed relevant. We owe more thanks to Monett’s leadership responding to that harbinger than we owe the railroad that sent it our way.

There are more stories to tell, more murals to add, tales both of early Monett, in the dim, noisy and dangerous train yard, and in the bright daylight of new aquatic center that opened this weekend.

There will be more art and more celebrations in Monett’s future. Just look at the mural, and don’t forget the message imbedded in its images.

Murray Bishoff has served readers of The Monett Times since 1988. He can be reached at times-news@monett-times.com, or 417-235-3135.