KENTLAND — The Newton County Historical Society is preparing to dedicate the completed mural detailing the storied history of the county on Dec. 3 with a ribbon-cutting.
Following months of planning that began in October of 2020, work began on the mural proper in June of 2021. The mural was paid for and sponsored by the Newton County Historical Society, and it features elements from the ten townships in Newton County, presenting their history for visitors and residents alike.
“Our intention with this mural was to make it for Newton County, about Newton County,” said Barbara Wilfong, a member of the Newton County Historical Society. “It’s just something we had enough space to do, and we had a big story to tell.”
The artist, Rein Bontreger, is a Newton County native, who operates his own design business in Rensselaer. With over 35 years of experience in airbrushing and hand-lettering techniques, in addition to his own roots in the community, he was selected as the perfect fit for this project.
“He was known by several people in our group, and we chose to have a local person do the mural rather than having someone that we did not know who had come from possibly another state,” said Wilfong. “We wanted to keep it as local as we possibly could.”
Bontreger works without the aid of other artists, and he completed the Newton County mural on his own, using airbrushing to depict local historical subjects with detail and layers of color that bring the scenes to life.
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.
In order to choose which aspects of the county’s history would be included in the mural, the society surveyed their membership and sorted through responses, determining which suggestions would mean the most to members of the county to have represented.
“We wanted to concentrate on the townships in Newton County and make sure we had something representing each township,” said Wilfong. “We have several [items] from some and not as many from others, but they are all included. We designed the mural so as you’re facing the mural, going from left to right, you go from south to north. We’ve had to deviate on a few things, but we wanted to start with the south end of the county and then move into the north.”
Some key landmarks from the county’s local history are featured on the mural, including: Perfection Fairfax, the prize bull of former Indiana governor Warren McCray; the Scott-Lucas House in Morocco, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places; Hazelden in Brook, which is the home estate of 19th century playwright George Ade; and the Newton Impact, the event in which a meteor landed in what is now the Kentland Quarry.
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 species of butterfly that is considered to have a vulnerable conservation status.
Threats to the insect’s habitats have caused a dramatic decrease in numbers since the 1960’s, with only three locations east of Indiana having sightings; however, regals can now be found at Beaver Lake, Kankakee Valley Sands, and Willow Slough, due to land conservation efforts.
“This started out as a photo opportunity, where you could stand with your arms out and act like you’re flying, act like you’re a butterfly,” explained Wilfong. “This is a culmination of hours of work.”
The efforts that went into the completion of this project extend beyond the paintbrush. Accompanying the mural will be a box of brochures with detailed histories of the scenes depicted, written by the Newton County Historical Society’s historian, Beth Bassett.
A box will be placed near the beginning of the mural, and guests are invited to take the brochures with them to continue learning about the county after their visit has ended. Additionally, a QR code has been painted onto the mural, which guests can scan in order to see the brochure’s information on their phones.
The dedication ceremony for the mural will take place on Friday, Dec. 3, at noon at Newton County Historical Society’s resource center. Guests are invited to attend and tour the center afterward, with hearty refreshments being served inside the center.
“We are so proud to present this to Newton County and to Kentland,” said Wilfong. “It’s taken about six months, but we are here.”