Ghost Mural discovery

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DECATUR, Ill. (WAND) - It’s not every day you come across a piece of history that hasn’t seen the light of day in more than a century.  That’s exactly what happened to one local business-owner, as she remodeled a building, in downtown Decatur. 

Decatur entrepreneur, Peggy Baity had her eye on this historic, downtown building for quite some time, even though it was far from move-in ready. But, that didn’t stop her.  She had a vision, and in bringing it to life, unearthed quite the treasure, by sheer accident.

“We had a little ladder accident, trying to move a 12-foot ladder and I swung it around and hit the plaster just right and exposed a 2-foot by 2-foot hole and exposed the brick and was totally excited by the exposed brick,” Baity said.

They kept chipping away, bit by bit, to reveal a centuries old advertisement.

“We originally uncovered the Genuine Bull Durham Tobacco and once that was finished I convinced my husband, I know there’s a bull in there somewhere and there is,” Baity said.

Bull Durham was hot on the advertising circuit.  A February 1884 ad from the Decatur Herald, featured the tobacco company.

“I know Durham Tobacco was the first company in the U.S. to employ outdoor mural advertising. They coined the term wall dogs,” Baity said.

The ArtFarm building was connected to the building with the mural in 1885, so we know the mural was painted sometime before then, by the Gunning Co. based out of Chicago.

With the help of the Decatur Public Library staff and archives in the local history room, we discovered Robert J. Gunning founded what would become one of the country’s leading outdoor advertising firms in Chicago, in 1873.  Commanding $100,000.00 per deal, much of his success was due to the philosophy that “positioning is everything,” which is why the exterior of the building at 250 North Park may have been the ideal spot for this Bull Durham Tobacco ad. Over the years it housed some popular businesses, like the Elite Millinery. In 1893, it was the place to go, to find newest spring styles, in Decatur.

As for The ArtFarm building, “It’s been a lot of different incarnations. A dance studio and a Philco Radio Store, then it was Kalamazoo Appliance Company for a while. Then in 1965, it was a butcher shop. It was the Murray Insurance building for a long time,” Baity said.

Today, it’s Peggy’s turn to add to its story.  She opened The ArtFarm at the beginning of the year, to showcase the work of Midwestern artists.  She doesn’t think it’s a coincidence her efforts to promote today’s budding artists, exposed an amazing piece of historic art.

“It was meant to be. The other buildings were in a lot better shape and would have been easier to get into, but this was just one of those things. I was being drawn here for a reason. I’m proud I was part of the mess,” Baity said.

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