Restoration to begin for iconic Keaton mural

Mural committee members estimate that the restoration project, which includes fixing peeling and slightly altering some features, could cost between $8,000 and $10,000.

Entering downtown Cottage Grove from the east, it’s hard to miss the wide-eyed, protuberant stare of Buster Keaton, planted on hands and knees on the pilot of a locomotive.

Perhaps also hard to miss is that the iconic mural at the gateway of the city’s downtown is due a retouch.

Routinely passing by the mural in his cleanup efforts of city streets, City Councilor Kenneth Roberts said he has noticed the state of disrepair himself.

“Over the years I’ve been watching it decay and I know that it’s just an important part of our history,” he said.

Deciding something needed to be done about it, Roberts went to city staff and discovered a state grant was available which could apply to the mural’s restoration.

With help from City Planner Amanda Ferguson, the grant was awarded and funneled through the Historic Landmark Commission as Roberts spearheaded the formation of a committee through sponsorship of the Cottage Grove Historical Society.

The resulting Buster Keaton Mural Restoration Project is looking not only to address peeling issues on the wall, but also to restore chromatic vitality and slightly adjust some of the mural’s features.

Following the completion of a raffle over the last month, which raked in just over $1,150, the restoration project seems to be heading in the right direction financially, according to committee members of the project.

Committee member and Chairman of the Historic Landmark Commission Lloyd Williams said the turnout for the fundraiser and the donations which have flowed in are reflective of a local itch to see the mural restored.

“I think the most important thing for me is that so many community members, in a time where it’s been difficult, a lot of people have still stepped up and tried to make this happen,” he said. “So I feel the community really wants that mural to be touched up. And I think there’s a bit of a community pride that goes with it.”

Committee members have estimated that the project could cost between $8,000 and $10,000 and a significant amount of the project’s success rests on meeting the conditions of a $4,000 matching grant from the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.

Providing the mural is fully restored by June 1, the grant itself will bring funds to the $8,000 mark.

The artist commissioned to restore the mural, Connie Huston, paid the site a visit this Tuesday to discuss the restoration with Williams and Roberts.

Huston said she is confident that the deadline can be met, weather permitting.

“I think that’s a little bit of a push, but it’s possible,” she said.

Huston is no stranger to painting murals in Cottage Grove, with two original creations and two restorations on her resumé.

The Opal Whiteley mural at All-America Square and the sepia-toned mural at the corner of Fifth and Main streets are both her creations. A few years ago, Huston restored the Opal mural and recently restored the Aqua Lions Swimming Club logo at the Warren H. Daugherty Aquatic Center.

A friend of the mural’s original artist, Howard Tharpe, Huston intends on keeping the mural’s thematic elements.

“There are a lot of issues with a wall, so we’ll have to compromise a certain amount, but I hope that whenever somebody sees it, they will certainly know this is that same mural,” she said. “Part of my vision is to not deviate from the general look.”

While much of the restoration will be subtle, Huston and committee members discussed bringing more of the crashing train into the frame and adjusting Keaton’s gaze to seem to be looking more naturally down the track.

Huston said the restoration should keep the mural in good condition for another 20 years or so.

Tharpe’s creation was painted overlooking the Main Street and Highway 99 intersection in 2002 as a commemoration of 1926 filming of “The General” starring Buster Keaton. 

While Cottage Grove is known to have served as the backdrop to many films over the years, “The General” holds the title of being the town’s first full-length feature film.

On May 27, 1926, cast and crew of the film pulled into Cottage Grove with 18 freight cars of Civil War-era cannons, stagecoaches, houses and rebuilt passenger cars. Laborers constructed an entire fake town where Safeway stands today to produce a piece of film history with a bloated budget of around $750,000.

Maintaining the mural as a dedication to this slice of history is culturally significant, said Williams, who is also past president of the Historical Society.

“It’s been on the Historical Society’s radar for some time,” he said.

Though more fundraising may occur in the coming months, the commitment of local donations has, in the minds of committee members, essentially secured that the restoration will not only be successful, but possibly spill over into other mural projects honoring Cottage Grove’s history.

“I want to thank all the businesses and people that made it happen – and the committee,” said Roberts.

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