Batavia recalls Saturday Evening Post cover of town
It's hard to believe that 60 years have passed since John Falter's painting "Fox River Ice-Skating," depicting a scene in Batavia, appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.
I still remember Mr. Falter sitting up on the bridge, looking down over the skating pond and creating his picture.
For those of you who are new to Batavia, I should note that the Falter painting is actually a painting of the area from McDonald's south to Water Street. In 1958, there were two bridges in town. Although the pond south of the west bridge was large enough for skating, no one skated there. It was a bit of a swamp. It was better skating just north of the bridge because the fire department would spray the area for a smoother skating surface.
In 1962, the south pond was lost to development when Larry Dempsey purchased the property and filled the area in to build the Batavia Shopping Plaza.
Falter took artistic license in creating the painting. He painted the east side because it was more picturesque, with the quarry stone buildings, but we accessed the river from the west side of the pond. That's where the oil drum was where Batavians could drop off wood to keep the fire burning to warm cold hands and faces. Railroad ties on the river's edge gave us a place to sit and lace up our skates.
We had no idea who this man was and had no idea what he was doing. When Monsignor Donovan, pastor at Holy Cross, was walking across town on his daily walk, he stopped and talked with the artist. After that, it was fair game to go up and see what he was doing. When I went up, he was sketching. Later reports said he was paining and painted the whole picture there. Now I know that isn't true.
It is interesting that some people really looked familiar in the painting, I know of at least five people who believe that they are the girl in the gray coat in the foreground, including my sister. That coat must have been on special at Robert Hall that year. There are some who believe the entire picture is filled with fictitious people created in the studio.
I was sure that Peggy Lund and Susie McConnaughay were in the painting. I tracked down Susie, who looked at the painting and admitted that it looked like her. Then I learned that she had never skated on the river because of weak ankles. And who was the man who looked like Monsignor Donovan in the lower right side of the painting?
Mayor Schielke also stated that Kathryn Markuson, who worked the front desk at the Batavia Herald, said Falter took a photo of the river without anyone on it.
"He would often try to incorporate local people into the paintings to make them feel like they were a part of it," said Dobie Falter Haws, Falter's cousin and curator of the Falter Museum in Falls City, Nebraska.
"Since your friends are wearing shoes on the ice, he probably snapped a photo of them and then put them in the painting." The same was probably true of Monsignor Donovan.
Haws cleared up quite a few things for me. As far as the comment about the photo without any people on it goes; Falter would scout locations and take photos. He also would finish the paintings in the studio. He liked to work from above looking down on his subject and didn't do any front faces since it took too much time.
All of this information was important to third-grade art students at Alice Gustafson School. Former teacher Marge Brown went into the art classes and talked about John Falter and the "Fox River Skater" painting. Under the direction of their art teacher, Laura Starzec, the students are re-creating Falter's painting on cardboard cubes and then doing a more modern day approach, putting themselves in the painting.
"We have never worked on a project like this before, where they have to work together to create their art," said Starzec. "It's a great exercise for them."
The students were excited to learn about the artist and study the painting. Then in small groups they painted what they saw.
"It will be more exciting for them when they try and paint themselves into the painting; with their own hats, gloves and jackets," she added.
There will be a celebration for the 60th anniversary of the Post cover at the Riverwalk from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 6. There will be music, refreshments and, weather permitting, skating. It will be hard to capture the real excitement that traveled through Batavia that year.
When the Post cover came out, there wasn't a copy to be found in town. Miriam Johnson realized the interest that the cover held for Batavians and set up a display at the Public Library. I remember standing there with about 20 other kids, in total awe.
"Do you see yourselves in the picture?" she asked in her quietest library voice. With big smiles and toothless grins, we nodded.
Whether or not we were in the picture didn't matter. We saw ourselves, the community of Batavia, and we knew that people across the country would see how special our little town was.