Janet and Rich Miller

Photo by Beth Bassett

Rich and Janet Miller stand in front of the regal fritillary depicted on the mural outside of the Newton County Historical Society building, which has been dedicated in their name.

KENTLAND — A crowd gathered around the Newton County Historical Society building on Friday, Dec. 3, looking over the completed mural detailing the history of Newton County in living color.

Members of the Newton County Historical Society opened the dedication by sharing the work that went into planning the execution of this mural since 2020, as well as thanking the community for their involvement. Barbara Wilfong, a project planner for the Newton County Historical Society, spoke on the process.

“Late in 2020, in the heart of COVID, our organization was blessed with a very generous gift. With that in mind, a small group of our friends began dreaming out loud about the possible mural for Newton County, about Newton County,” she said. “Even though our county is the youngest county in Indiana, we have an exciting story to tell, and we had the perfect spot to tell it. After careful thought and consideration, we came up with 30 places and things of historic value in Newton County, making sure that all 10 townships within our county were recognized. In February of this year, we sent out a letter to all of our members with a survey, asking them to select their choices, and from that survey, we started laying the groundwork for this 100-foot wall.”

Covering the eastern wall of the society’s building on East Seymour Street, the mural depicts key figures, landmarks, and imagery from the beginning of Newton County’s refounding in 1859. A side section of the mural, painted onto the door of the building, features the original boundaries of Newton County, as they were laid out in the 19th century.

Some key landmarks from the county’s local history are featured on the mural, including: Perfection Fairfax, the Scott-Lucas House in Morocco, Hazelden in Brook, and the Newton Impact. A centerpiece of the mural is an enormous butterfly, roughly five feet tall, with its bright orange wings extended. An accompanying label names it as a “Regal Fritillary,” a vulnerable butterfly species that has been found in Beaver Lake, Kankakee Valley Sands, and Willow Slough, due to land conservation efforts.

In order to capture the spirit of local history and community conservation, the society looked for a local artist to create their dream mural. They did not have to search far, finding Rein Bontrager, a Newton County native with over 35 years of experience in airbrushing and hand-lettering techniques. Bontrager operates his own design business and has completed murals in Rensselaer.

“He was as excited about our project as we were,” recalled Wilfong. “There was none of this, ‘Oh, I don’t think we can do this.’ In June, many of you were here for our kick-off, and a couple of days later, Rene began his work. With many days of spray paint work, the dream began to take off. Of course, we had to deal with rain and bad weather and more rain and more rain, but Rene made it work. Of course, being mostly women on this committee, we had to make a few changes along the way, but Rene made it so easy for us. I can’t tell you how many emails I sent that I just received two words: ‘Got it.’”

Bontrager first began working on the mural in June of 2021, and he completed the project without the aid of other artists.

“I will say, it seemed a little daunting when I got that first laundry list of hand-written notes of what they had in mind,” he said. “It was a challenge, but it was a real joy to do.”

Founding members of the Newton County Historical Society, Janet and Rich Miller were in attendance at the mural dedication, and they were acknowledged for their work in preserving county history and encouraging the community to learn. For their decades of work, the Millers received a plaque revealing that the mural was to be dedicated in their name, a surprise that was organized by members of the society.

Visitors to the mural will be able to learn about the stories and histories depicted along the building’s length by picking up a brochure or scanning the QR code at the base of the mural. The brochures were written and put together by Beth Bassett, the historian for the Newton County Historical Society.

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