Twin smokestacks tower over the few buildings left in Newgulf, Texas, a onetime boomtown established in 1928 to man the nation’s largest sulfur mine. When the operation shut down in 1993, the community faded away.
Dayton Wodrich wanted to make sure that no one ever forgot Newgulf, so he emblazoned huge images of those smokestacks, along with a black steam shovel loading sulfur into railcars, as part of an exterior wall mural on a downtown building in nearby Boling (pop. 1,271).
“That mural preserves the history of what’s no longer there,” says Wodrich, 70, who’s painted more than 100 historical murals with help from his wife, Sandy. “Children who grow up in the area look at that mural and remember what Newgulf used to be like.”
More than 20 towns across Texas and a few in other states exhibit Wodrich’s murals—which range from 50 to 200 feet long and up to 18 feet high—on the sides of businesses, museums, warehouses and city buildings. The murals highlight historical events, people, and industries special to those places: cattle in Henrietta, cotton in Wharton and coastal birds in Palacios.
In El Campo (pop. 10,945), bus tours of visitors come to view the town’s 20-plus murals, most of which were painted by Wodrich.
“They’re a wonderful tourist attraction,” says Becca Socha, president of the El Campo Chamber of Commerce. “There’s been no vandalism either, so that just shows the pride our community has in our murals.”
That news delights the Wodriches, who’ve turned their motto–“Preserving History through Art”–into a lifelong mission. Raised in South Texas near the Mexican border, both Dayton and Sandy have shared a passion for history throughout their 46-year marriage—and earlier.
“When we were dating, we used to drive around and look for Pancho Villa’s hideaways,” Dayton says, “and we found a few.”
His interest in art has always been big. Literally. “When I was a kid,” he recalls, “I’d get cardboard boxes from the grocery store, lay them down, paint a Santa Claus, then cut him out. He’d be taller than a house.”
After his discharge from the U.S. Air Force, Dayton earned a fine arts degree from the University of Kansas, then worked in advertising in Houston for 15 years. On the side, he painted portraits and gave art lessons. In 1981, the couple and their four children moved to Independence, a community not far from where the Texas Declaration of Independence was signed in 1836.
In a makeshift studio, Dayton created sets for his son’s high school drama classes and large backdrops for annual coronations in nearby Brenham (pop. 13,507). “At first, I painted in a rat-infested barn,” he chuckles. “I’d leave at sunset because they’d take over. There were some turkeys, too, that would lurk behind me, then grab my paintbrushes and take off.”
In 1989, Blinn College in Brenham commissioned Wodrich to turn a large indoor hall into a baseball field, complete with hundreds of fans in the stands. The project ultimately led to his first outdoor mural in Brenham.
“A bank hired me to paint one on their building about railroading, because they were involved in getting the railroad to town,” he explains.
These days, various chambers of commerce, economic development agencies, business owners and historical societies hire Dayton and Sandy to paint their pasts. Each mural, which costs $2,500 and up, starts with meticulous research. The two read local history books, visit libraries and museums, interview residents and gather vintage photos.
“They get into a community, and as a result, they know a lot about the town,” says Jeffrey Blair, a banker in Wharton (pop. 9,237), where the couple has painted 10 murals. “They’ve become a part of us, even though they don’t live here.”
Armed with their research and wall measurements, the couple returns to Independence, where Dayton sketches a scaled design in his studio (a late-1800s grocery store). Once approved, painting begins at the site. Depending on size and weather, they can finish a mural within seven days.
“We use outdoor oil-based enamel paint, and I mix all our colors,” says Sandy, 66. “Dayton sketches his design in chalk or crayons on the wall, then outlines it in brown paint. I paint backgrounds and big areas of color. He’ll come behind me and add details and highlights that make the design pop out.”
Dayton often incorporates existing architectural elements—windows, doors and exterior staircases—into the murals. For instance, on a mural in downtown Concord, N.C. (pop. 55,977), Wodrich painted a tall, leafy tree that integrates one of three barred windows.
“As soon as he finished the tree, the birds came and sat on the bars,” Sandy laughs. “So we even fooled the birds!”
Visit www.wodrichmurals.com to learn more.