The sound of a bell breaks the Sunday morning stillness, as a trolley coasts to a stop. The double doors open and out they trundle – 20 tourists complete with requisite cameras. Yet they don't snap pictures of the towering Maltby Oak, the thought-provoking military memorial, or even the north-flowing St. Johns River . Instead, these visitors enthusiastically snap pictures of…a wall.
But this isn’t your run-of-the-mill side of a building. It's one of numerous walls – 32 total – in and around downtown Palatka that have been transformed from ordinary into two-dimensional community legacy.
The mural being studied here is titled "Night Passage" and features the riverboat Hiawatha making its way up the Ocklawaha River through black water, past a lurking alligator, and under a dark sky, trees, and the haunting drip of Spanish moss. "It's a wonderful way to preserve history," says Betty Winslow of Brewster, Massachusetts, on "shore leave" from a cruise line ferry that regularly docks at Palatka’s port on the St. John’s. Others agree as they take photos of the wall in an effort to take a little piece of Palatka home with them.
Source of Pride
While Palatka’s murals are a draw to tourists, they’ve become a source of local pride as well, believes Dr. Judy Rothschild, Chair of the Conlee-Snyder Mural Committee, which has sponsored the majority of the local paintings. “People donate money because they like what we are trying to do for the downtown area and want to help us continue our efforts.”
Palatka resident Len Freeman agrees, saying he enjoys the murals almost daily as he drives between his downtown business and nearby home. “From a personal standpoint, I enjoy looking at them every day. I think they’re wonderful,” Len says, noting the program celebrates the city’s history, culture, and scenic beauty, as well as helping further the business district’s beautification efforts.
Len also notes that Clint and Elizabeth Snyder, the local couple who headed up the original committee and after whom it is, in part, named, are longtime friends and have been a driving force for the project from the onset. Now part of the Florida Mural Trail, Palatka has joined with such cities as Gainesville , Kissimmee , Fort Pierce , Punta Gorda, and Lake Placid , which offered the original inspiration for the Palatka program.
Palatka’s murals capture moments in local history and scenes in local culture and environmental beauty. For instance, Mug Race features 50 sailboats preparing for the start of the annual Palatka event of the same name. Wildflowers in Putnam County , offers a colorful tribute to local flora, while Bygone Days incorporates existing architectural elements of its host building into a picture reminiscent of the town’s pioneer era. A couple dances and musicians play on a balcony below and above actual windows, blurring the line between fantasy and reality.
"The next mural will be an 1870’s era scene of St. Johns Avenue,” says Judy, “with people, buildings, and a highwire act stretching across the street from an 1870's circus that actually came to town.”
You Can’t Miss It
Although none of the murals is created as a commercial endeavor, having one on your building does offer some perks. "Night Passage" adorns Accountant Keith Cutrer's building at 4th and St. Johns . "I don't know if I've gotten any business from it but I do get recognition," Keith says. "It's great when people call and say 'Where are you?' and I can say 'I'm in the riverboat mural.' When you see it, you know it."
"I love that the murals are art open to the public eye," says another downtown merchant, Mary Rhadigan of The Art Shoppe & Gallery. "I also love that not every artist chosen has an Arts degree. Some didn't want to – or couldn't – attend arts school. Yet some of us have it in here." She thumps her heart and smiles, offering yet another example of the pride these murals have engendered here.
Palatka is located on the west bank of the St. John’s River about an hour south of Jacksonville . For more information see www.conleemurals.org.
Get Your Guides
The Putnam County Chamber of Commerce prints a guide that lists the 20 murals commissioned by the Conlee-Snyder Mural Committee, as well as 12 other murals funded separately or done by students. Palatka mural guides are available through the Putnam County Chamber of Commerce. Order them via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 386-328-1503. For more information about the Florida Mural Trail see http://www.visitflorida.com/articles/mural-towns-paint-heritage.