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Placemaking through Community Art

By Judith Peterson

Location: Lawton, Michigan
Population: 1,900

When local businesswoman Amy Atwater opened her business in downtown Lawton, she noticed how stark and barren the wall between her building and village hall looked. She approached the village council with an idea to improve the south side of village hall with a mural. Intrigued, the council asked Atwater to garner additional community interest. She returned with local artist Sandee Willis and muralist Linda Valentino-Walker, who provided sketches and proposals. The village president referred the idea to the public works committee for further action.

The committee began meeting to discuss various options. First was an expansion of the committee to include fire department representatives, community representatives, and local people interested in the history and heritage of Lawton. The committee relied on people we like to call our “consultants”—such as local historians and the director of the Paw Paw Area Art Association who gave us ideas and concepts for murals.

Community Support
The committee discussed the possibility of applying for a state grant for the project, but instead determined that we had the resources, people, and will to create and complete the mural right here in our community. The committee held a community input meeting to determine the special, unique characteristics of the village that could be portrayed in a mural. The outcome was a list of 12 major events, buildings, and historical scenes that celebrated our heritage. It was also decided not to paint directly on the wall but to enlist the assistance of local artists, each of which would paint a scene on a polymer board panel which would then be hung on the south wall.

A call was sent out through the art association and the Lawton Free Reader (a local monthly paper) and local artists stepped forward to participate in this community event. Eventually 11 artists were chosen to paint 12 panels.

Go-To People
This community is blessed with a wonderful location, beautiful vistas, and warm, generous people. As always in a project like this, there are a few who become the go-to people—those you can count on to provide help when asked. Tim Washburn and Bruce Marks helped with the selection of the historic photos, provision of the photos for the artists’ use, and the community planning event. They even went to Kalamazoo County to pick up the panels and provided a place for us to apply the gesso coat.

Sandee Willis was always available to help, from painting on gesso (thanks Vicki Downs for showing us how it is done!), attending all the meetings, enlisting artists in the cause, and helping to raise money by going from business to business with me. And then we found George Graff! A newbie to the area, George has done so much to make this project a success—he came up with the concept for the frames, constructed them, applied the finish coat to all the panels (in his garage), brought them back, then hung them. If you want a go-to guy for a project, ask George!

The murals were unveiled on Memorial Day 2011, during the annual community barbecue lunch.

houpert winery fire Houpert Winery Fire
Artist George Graff
The Houpert Winery was built in 1903 as the Lawton Vineyard Co. It burned down in 1940. During the fire, wine from burst casks and bottles flowed into the creek and was pumped back onto the fire. The Lawton Fire Department had one Model A Ford truck pumper at the time.
honee bear canning Honee Bear Canning
Artist Sandee Willis
The Honee Bear Canning Company, founded in 1946, is the world’s largest canner of asparagus. The Packer Family has its origins in Lawton with a store on Main Street. The store marketed hides and fresh produce, among other things.
adams hardware Adams Hardware
Artist Vicki Downs
Adams Hardware was founded in 1860, and celebrated 150 years in business in 2010.
Hauling Grapes and Town Hall
Artist Anne Shaver
The red brick town hall was built in the 1800s and used as an opera house as well as for official town business. It had hardwood floors for dancing, a stage for performances, a spectator’s balcony, and a bell tower for emergency communication.
the depot The Depot
Artist Susan Appleby
The depot was built in 1846 and was called Paw Paw Station because of a connecting railway with the village of Paw Paw. It served Lawton with passenger and freight for over 100 years. It now belongs to the American Legion. At one time, there was enough traveler traffic to support the three story Hotel Giddings.
eaton Eaton Manufacturing and Welch’s
Artist Ashlea Beal
The Eaton Manufacturing Building was originally the J. Hungerford Smith Grape Juice Company. Eaton took over in 1951 and employed up to 175 workers. Eaton closed in the mid-1960s. Welch Grape Juice Company took over the Wilson Grape Juice Company plant in 1919 and is currently the world’s largest processor of grape juice products.
main street Main Street looking north
Artist Jody Borowiak
Main Street changed many times since the early 1900s and at various times included hardware, dry goods, grocery, piano, furniture, and drug stores, banks, a Ford dealership, tobacco shops, jewelers, a news stand, barbershop, restaurants, florists, a newspaper, and numerous other establishments.
grape pickers Grape Pickers
Artist Jody Tucker
Originally grapes were handpicked by local residents. Pay was by the basket or lug. The first grapes were planted in Lawton shortly after the Civil War and were sold and packed for the fresh market. With the turn of the century, grape juice and wine became the market of choice. Lawton was a pioneer in commercial grape production and processing in the state
st paul's and first baptist St. Paul’s and First Baptist
Artist Donnie Smith
St. Paul’s Methodist Church was built in 1863. The Lawton Baptist Church worshiped in a variety of buildings with its current structure being built in 1901 after losing its 1870 structure to fire.
postoffice Lawton Post Office
Artist Vicki Zaworski
The Lawton Post Office was established in 1851 by Col. Andrew Longstreet, Postmaster. The first rural carrier was Thomas Mayhard whose family later owned the town’s general store.
lawton village school Lawton Village School circa 1907
Artist Dan Smith
The first village schoolhouse was built in 1870, and graduated its first class in 1873. It burned in 1912 and was rebuilt in 1915 and currently serves as one of four district buildings. The village schools were supported by numerous one room rural schools which were finally consolidated in the ’50s and ’60s.
mark's field & lawton golf course Mark’s Field & Lawton Golf Course
Artist George Graff
Mark’s Field was a private sod runway airfield with numerous individual plane hangers. It served as the host of numerous fly-ins and was the site of the county fair in the late ’50s. It was converted to a golf course in the early ’70s

Judith Peterson serves on the Lawton village council. You may reach her at

Want more?
Want more? Read “Building Cultural Economic Development: An Economic Force Waiting to be Harnessed,” by Dr. Bill Anderson, from the League placemaking book. Anderson was the founding director of the Michigan Department of History, Arts and Libraries.



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