Norman Rockwell mural returns to Agriculture Dept.

Who knew state Departments of Agriculture were such hotbeds of artistic controversy? Last week the Georgia agriculture commissioner said he’d remove murals depicting slavery. Now the Vermont agriculture commissioner is delighted to welcome back a Norman Rockwell photographic mural depicting Vermont’s most famed agricultural product. “Maple Sugaring in Vermont” is a black-and-white picture of men working maple trees around a sugar house. One of those men is Norman Rockwell himself.

Rockwell moved to Arlington, Vermont in 1939 and became fast friends with Chairman of the Vermont Sugar Makers Association, Colonel Henry Fairfax Ayres. The good Colonel was a World War I hero who retired to Vermont in 1937, invented new devices and processes that revolutionized maple sugaring, and was instrumental in getting grading standards for syrup enacted by the legislature. He rejoined the military after Pearl Harbor, retiring again in 1945 due to an injury he received on a PT Boat raid.

Agriculture commissioner Roger Albee views Norman Rockwell mural on Dept. of Ag's wallIn 1947, he commissioned his friend to make the 5-by-7-foot mural which Ayres then lent to the state for display.

The mural hung in the lobby of the state Agency of Agriculture building in Montpelier for years. In 1987, the state lent it to the Norman Rockwell Museum of Vermont because building renovations had displaced it.

At the Rutland museum, it came to anchor an exhibit popular with foliage-viewing visitors and Rockwell buffs. The state never sought to reclaim it.

But last year, Agriculture Secretary Roger Allbee — who knew of the loan from twin brother Ronald, who held the agriculture secretary job before him — began making inquiries at the museum.

The museum refused to return it. They had had it on prominent display for 23 years, after all, and they were hardly keen to amputate it off of their collection. They asked that the state demonstrate proof of ownership, so Allbee took up the issue with the state attorney general’s office. They researched the ownership issue, locating archives, witnesses and contacting Ayres’ grandson who offered to sue the museum if they continued to refuse to return the mural.

Last week, the dam broke and “Maple Sugaring in Vermont” was returned to the capital where it now hangs in the second-floor hallway of the Department of Agriculture building. The museum is bereft; curator Rachel Lynes-Bell calls the transfer “a tragedy” for them.

For an excellent online archive Norman Rockwell’s work, from Saturday Evening Post covers to preparatory sketches and pictures, see the official Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA. I particularly enjoyed this featured archive of his work on The Gossips, one of his most popular Post covers (and possibly the inspiration for Timex Social Club’s classic Rumors video).