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This Artist Paints Murals Of Soldiers In Hopes That Trains Will Stop Again In Holden, Missouri

Julie Denesha
Mural artist Robert Vollrath replaces a paint roller before starting work on his next mural. Behind him, Vollrath's monumental portrait of World War I veteran John Lewis Barkley adorns the old Tamridge House Hotel in downtown Holden, Missouri.

When Robert Vollrath was a boy, trains stopped in the small town of Holden, Missouri. These days plenty of trains blow through town, but one hasn't stopped since 1970. But Vollrath has an idea. If he paints enough murals of local war veterans facing the tracks, Amtrak riders will want to stop in Holden.

It's a plan that keeps him out in all kinds of weather.

"When big flakes of snow are coming down I like to paint because people go, 'Robert’s crazy! He's out there painting in the snow,'" Vollrath says.

Wearing just a sweatshirt as the cold wind whips around him, Vollrath's currently outside the old Tamridge House Hotel, dabbing bright red paint on a mound of poppies. Towering on the brick wall above him is a 45-foot doughboy from World War I: John Lewis Barkley, a hero from Holden who received the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1918.

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
Trains pass through Holden, Missouri, several times a day. Robert Vollrath says he hopes his outsized paintings of veterans will convince riders to want to stop in town.

Besides being out in the weather, Holden also has to contend with the danger of falling brick.

"You got to wear a hard hat when you're working with a paint pole, especially up high because you'll have a brick come down and it can kill you. I say this kind of mural painting is not for the wimpy," he says with a laugh. "It's almost like bare-knuckle murals when you paint on really old brick buildings."

Holden was founded in 1858, just before the Civil War. During the fighting, most of its businesses were burned to the ground. After the war, though, the railroad brought prosperity. Today it's a farming town, home to about 2,500 people.

One reason folks visit Holden is to shop at Walker’s 5&10, tucked in among the historic storefronts along 2nd Street. There’s been a general store in this spot since the late 1800s.

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
A pickup truck passes Walker's 5 and 10. The storefront on 2nd Street has been a general store since the late 1800s.

"You don't get stores like this in small towns anymore," says Scotty Walker, who has owned the place with his wife for the past 30 years.

People come in for all sorts of essentials, but Walker's 5&10 is famous for its cookie cutters. Walker stocks them in 267 different shapes, and has seen customers from as far away as Denver.

"It's not unusual at all for somebody to come in and buy 50 cookie cutters all at once," he says.

Walker's store is just a few doors down from where Vollrath is painting his big mural. He says he was skeptical when he first heard about it, but was impressed with the results.

"I mean, that's a pretty big building and I wasn't sure how it would turn out," Walker says. "I just was doubtful of how it would look. I was pretty impressed, yeah."

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
Vollrath sketches out the beginnings of his next mural. It features his father, who was a member of the military police during the Korean War.

Vollrath says not everyone in town was pleased when he started painting murals eight years ago. He did one of the old train station, and in other places he painted unicorns and scenes from Holden's past.

"I had a lot of people criticize me, saying I was turning the town into a cartoon and I was ruining the town," He says. "And all that went away when I did the veterans mural."

Besides, he has a clear idea of whose opinion matters most.

“My audience is the Amtrak," Vollrath says. "Trying to get the trains to stop here, got to give them a reason.”


Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
Vollrath takes a moment to wave at the passengers on an Amtrak train passing through town.

An Amtrak spokesman, Marc Magliari, tells KCUR the train can’t stop everywhere. But if folks in Holden wanted to make a case, he says, Amtrak could look into it.

"I don't know if it will happen," Vollrath says, "but you just got to have faith and believe."

Vollrath says he plans to paint 20 murals celebrating military veterans. So far, he's mapped out World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan. To get it all done, he plans to work all winter.

Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her on Twitter, @juliedenesha.

Julie Denesha is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Kansas City. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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