Mural tells story of area
By Morgan Bryce
Driving down Highway 280, pine trees dominate the landscape and horizon. Occasionally, a house or two will break up the monotony. Soon a faded red barn offers hope of a diversion for the weary traveler. On the side of this barn there is a short but simple message: “Old Salem Antiques – 1 mile ahead”.
The building that is home to Old Salem Antiques is directly to the right of the highway, over some well-worn railroad tracks. The building itself is eye-catching, because of its old Southern style and construction. However, the most noticeable and appealing part of the building is the mural adorning its side.
The mural has no title, but is a piece of art depicting, in a handful of moments, the history of the Salem community. From a beloved physician to the now-removed to Opelika, Salem Shotwell Bridge, the mural shows images of Salem’s past within its 14-foot tall by 94-foot long frame.
Completed in 1996, the mural is the brainchild of former owner Allen Woodall, who saw it as both a business opportunity and way of preserving a slice of Salem’s history for the enjoyment of both residents and passersby alike.
“When I purchased the building back in 1991, that wall was plain. Nothing on it at all,” Allen said. “I was talking with my brother Whit about what we should do with it, and that’s when I had the idea for the mural. It just made sense.”
The search to find an artist to paint this mural proved difficult. But, finally, after months of visiting art museums and networking, Allen found the ‘’perfect person’’ to fulfill his artistic vision, a woman named Ans Steenmeijer.
“She painted murals in Opelika and Pine Mountain that I really liked,” Woodall said. “She had this ability with her work that really brought history to life. I knew she could do the same with what I was wanting to do.”
Steenmeijer grew up in an artistic family, and her father played an important part in getting her into painting. “My father Dirk was into oil paintings and murals,” Steenmeijer said. “He taught me all of his techniques, and eventually I got good enough to help him paint his figures.”
Steenmeijer studied art in college, and, after graduation, pursued a career as a fashion artist. Unfortunately, those plans changed when she was faced with a serious medical problem.
“I found out I had a brain tumor,” Steenmeijer said. “Thankfully, they were able to remove it, but in the procedure I lost sight in my right eye, which made me decide to focus on bigger projects because I couldn’t paint the smaller details anymore.”
Steenmeijer’s reputation as a painter of murals steadily grew. Soon she had painted dozens of murals across Alabama and Georgia, most notably inside the Woodruff Museum of Natural History and National Civil War Museum in Columbus, Georgia.
In the spring of 1996, Woodall called her about painting a mural on the side of his new antique business.
“I can remember how I felt after that phone call,” Steenmeijer said. “It was thrilling, humbling and to me an honor that they would consider me to paint this mural for them.”
Over the next two months, Steenmeijer worked on the mural, carefully following Woodall’s wishes on its layout and content. But for her, the biggest struggle wasn’t the work or design of the artwork, but working against the elements.
“I would work on the mural when I could,” Steenmeijer said. “If there was rain or bad weather I would have to wait to paint again until the wall was completely dry.”
After completion of the mural, the store received an increase in traffic as more and more people noticed the mural and stopped to check it out.
“People would come inside and ask about the people depicted in the mural,” Whit, Allen’s brother, said. “They came in wanting to know more. The mural not only served as education about Salem’s past but brought in business for our store.”
The mural is intended, according to Allen, as a ‘’tribute to the people whose hands built Salem.”
Whit Woodall, who now manages Old Salem Antiques, explains the story and significance of the mural, section by section.
“The first image you’ll see here is a picture of a locomotive,” Whit said. “Salem was a well-known train stop in the early 1900s, so we wanted to include a picture of this train and the old Salem train depot to give people an idea of what sights and sounds you would have seen here at that point and time in our history.”
The next image shows an elderly couple, hand in hand, standing in front of the depot.
“The couple here is the Dunns, Mr. Chester and his wife Earnestina,” Whit said. “They are well known in Salem’s history because Chester was the Salem train depot’s conductor for over 50 years, and his wife Earnestina was a teacher and principal at Salem Elementary for that same length of time.”
Next is Salem’s arguably most famous citizen, Dr. A.D. McLain, who is pictured standing next to his Ford Model T, with his office in the background.
“Dr. McLain was well loved by everyone around here in Salem,” Whit said. “He was a doctor here for over 50 years and successfully delivered over 4,000 babies without incident.”
The next image captures Salem’s agricultural past, showing sharecroppers picking cotton.
“Agriculture was Salem’s means of survival for a long time,” Whit said. “Cotton was the primary source of income and the main crop in this area.”
Painted over double doors on the store’s side, the Salem Shotwell Bridge seemingly beckons one to walk through it. Probably the most detailed and intricately done part of the mural, the bridge was a well-known crossing in Salem’s past and helped the cotton farmers carry their cotton to market.
Right next to the bridge is a man carrying a cart full of cotton to the market.
“This image I think depicts the hustle and bustle involved in farming,” Whit said. “Since this was your livelihood, you had to work hard, and I think you can see that in this picture.”
The last image shows men tapping pine trees for sap, which would later be converted into turpentine, adhesives or medicines.
“A little known fact about Salem is that the tree sap industry was almost as big as cotton at one point,” Whit said. “Cotton and tree sap were definitely the two biggest industries in the Salem community for a long, long time.”
Most of the images in the mural are slices of life from the last 100 years. For many, including store patron Renee Nelson, the mural is a link to memories shared with them by their parents or grandparents.
“I view the mural as being full of history,” Nelson said. “It shows the great progress in transportation and industry, everyday folks who worked from sunup to sundown and people who were proud of family and hard work. It was a simpler time that we Southerners should be proud of.”
The people and places depicted in the mural, for the most part, are long gone. However, the mural serves as a constant reminder of Salem’s roots and the hard-working people who lived their lives here.
Now nearly 20 years old, the mural has lost some of its luster, thanks mostly to constant exposure to the elements. Whit plans on having it repainted and revived at some point soon, but he believes the mural’s appeal and draw is still strong as ever.
“The mural is something I want to keep up and maintain,” Whit said. “It is so vitally important that we know our past and know who came before us. And this mural tells the story of our community like nothing else can.”