LIGONIER — Ruth Elijah and Betty Peterson laugh at the memory.
It centers on a barbershop in Michigan, where they’d stopped multiple times to inquire about a mural in the area.
“We got so famous in one town up there that when we walked in the door, they’d go, ‘There’s those Ligonier women again,’” Peterson said with a smile. “The ‘Ligonier ladies’ is what they called us, I guess.”
Beginning in 2007, the duo drove thousands of miles and made repeat trips across the country researching murals in preparation to bring the art form to Ligonier as a way to revitalize the city, logging more than 1,700 hours the first summer.
Ten years later, Ligonier has more than 30 such paintings throughout its downtown and calls itself the City of Murals.
It’s a legacy the women never planned to create when they attended their first Future Ligonier Alliance meeting. But when a consultant was brought in to discuss what could help improve the community, murals were on the list. Elijah and Peterson created and became the committee to make it happen.
“We were the committee,” Elijah said. “We were the two that did everything.”
That meant finding donors, artists and buildings to bring the idea to fruition.
Luckily, the friends, in their late 70s and early 80s at the time, knew how to work off of each other’s strengths, especially in finding community support and funding for the projects.
“I think I drove most of the time,” Peterson said, then directed a comment at Elijah. “You made me do all the talking, too.”
“When we went in the factories, I’m outspoken and Betty’s real sweet, so I let her do the sweet talking,” Elijah explained.
“She’d get the prices for us,” Peterson said. “We work together really well.”
Their relationship and the passion for what the murals would bring to the city earned them a $5,000 donation from the first business they visited to solicit funding, Structural Composites of Indiana. Of the 40 businesses and industries they contacted, they only received five nos.
That was a record, Peterson said, adding that none of the murals was paid for with taxpayer money.
Ligonier Mayor and FLA member Patty Fisel remembers the day Peterson and Elijah received that first donation.
“I can still see Betty coming to me the day that they walked out of one of the industries with a $5,000 check. They said, ‘Look what just happened.’ It gives me goosebumps,” Fisel said. “From there on, that was the seed that helped that whole project to get started and grow.”
The duo began signing agreements with building owners to use the blank canvases on the sides of downtown buildings for the murals, as well as finding artists to create them. They also enlisted the help of Norma and Jerry Donley to keep record of the accounts and power wash and prime the buildings for the art.
Each mural was carefully planned to bring a piece of Ligonier’s history to life, with a goal to only feature scenes that couldn’t already be viewed, such as the city as it was in 1835 and 1899. They looked to old photographs and information available through historical societies and libraries to inspire the paintings, but they ultimately chose every detail.
“We wanted to do the history of Ligonier. We wanted to save our heritage,” Elijah said. “Between the two of us, we did what we wanted to do, and we didn’t care. We weren’t having to do it, we weren’t pushed to do it.”
Over the past decade, more murals have continued to be painted, and as each one goes up, more support is garnered to encourage future murals.
Peterson and Elijah remember when the mural of “The Wars 1775-1974” was being painted in 2008 on Station Street, and resident Rex Hagen happened to walk past, admiring the work. In his excitement of what was being created, he asked for a plane he piloted to be included in the collage.
Then, on the spot, he paid for the cost of the mural.
The Rex Hagen Family Foundation continues to provide an annual fund for the maintenance of the city’s murals.
The city’s murals also connected Peterson to a distant cousin in Switzerland who found the “Ligonier Circa 1899” mural online and recognized the name of her grandfather’s jewelry store, which is featured in the painting.
“So you never know where your murals are going,” Elijah said.
While it brings the community together, it also attracts new visitors to the area to discover and learn its history. Located along the main route to Shipshewana, a tourist hot spot, the city’s murals work to slow down those who may just pass by to spend time in the city.
“It’s almost like they’ve taken on a life of their own. It would be really interesting to me to know how many people have stopped and taken pictures and toured,” Fisel said. “We weren’t the first city, but it’s amazing to me how many cities since we’ve done our program have seen the value. … I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s a testament to the fact of how successful it is, the project was.”
Peterson, now 89, and Elijah, 93, still have more ideas to showcase the history of Ligonier, such as a painting dedicated to the Inks family who began multiple businesses in the area. But the problem lies in the space available to paint the murals. Much of it already has been used or is unable to be seen easily from the main streets of the city.
It won’t stop the duo from continuing to search and trying to get more accomplished.
It’s a legacy they never asked for, but it’s one they’re proud to be a part of.
“We weren’t even thinking, we just started,” Elijah said. “We feel like we did what we wanted to do because it’s something we wanted to do. It’s no glory, nothing.”
“We’re just proud of how they all turned out,” Peterson said.
And when asked which is their favorite mural, they give each other a glance, assuming they know what the other will say.
“I probably have two that are my favorite,” Elijah said.
Peterson smiled, “They’re probably the same ones.”
“The first one and the train is mine,” Elijah said, as Peterson agreed.
“The first one and the train are the ones everyone likes best.”