The Mystery of the Murals
Generations of the McDaniel family have lived with an artistic enigma
By Kathy Ursprung
A likely place to start the whodunit at 922 W. 10th St., The Dalles, is in Yellowstone Park.
That’s where Wiley McDaniel, a Southern gent with a slow drawl, and his Connecticut Yankee bride, Dorothy, eloped in September 1925.
“They met in Wisconsin,” says Marilyn McDaniel, their granddaughter by marriage. “They moved in here right after they were married.”
Wiley came to The Dalles as an electrician with the railroad and set up his own business before he married Dorothy. She was a homemaker.
A decade or so after they moved into the house on 10th Street, Wiley had murals painted—scenes from national parks, including Yellowstone—on its walls.
A husbandly gift evoking the memory of their scenic beginning, perhaps? That is the mystery.
The old house looks much like it might have when the couple moved in: small rooms and tall, pastel-painted kitchen cupboards with turn latches common in the early 20th century.
The house has been added onto, but in that kitchen one might imagine Dorothy moving through her daily activities all those years ago. She lived there until her death in 1993.
“It’s very original,” Marilyn says, “other than some coats of paint back when. I can remember different colors in the kitchen. I’ve been coming since 1960.”
Marilyn and her nephew, Mark, tell the story of Wiley and Dorothy, and the mysterious art they left behind.
The couple had an interesting history before moving to The Dalles. Dorothy came from an established family in Connecticut. She taught high school English in New York City and coached boys’ basketball. She later taught at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
“She was a really interesting lady,” Marilyn says. “But she became sad. I thought it was because she came here and didn’t ever do that much except the house and church work.”
Mark thinks she may have been sad because she missed her family back east. She had a twin brother who visited, and Dorothy went back to Connecticut a few times, too.
Wiley was raised dirt poor on a farm in Louisiana, but he and his siblings were all geniuses, Mark says. Wiley’s father was killed in a 1902 race riot. His mother raised their three children alone.
More than 90 years after Wiley and Dorothy moved into the home, their family members were clearing out the house to sell it when they uncovered the full extent of the art that was left behind. Four murals cover the walls with mountains, waterfalls, lakes and rivers in scenes not only from Yellowstone, but from Crater Lake, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. They are painted in muted tones, suited to a bedroom setting, and include a tiny border detail. They were painted on boards affixed to the walls with tiny nails.
“You would think something like this would be signed somewhere, but it’s not,” Mark says. “And Grandma never said anything. The only thing I can remember her saying was that she had the artist come back and put the bluebird and bush in.”
That little detail resides just above where the bedstead sat, perfectly placed to be the first thing Dorothy saw in the morning.
“We should have said, ‘OK, tell us this story,’” Mark says.
Mark has lived in the house for the past five years. Along with some other property, it is a legacy left in trust to the couple’s grandchildren.
“I saw the murals as a little kid and thought they were something,” Mark says. “Being older, I really appreciate them a lot more.”
Marilyn showed the mystery murals to longtime The Dalles resident Laura Comini, who has quite a bit of historical knowledge of the area.
“Laura went home and got to thinking,” Mark explains. “She said, ‘I have a tray …’ Her father had it painted for her in 1942 as a birthday present. There are some similarities, and it is signed.”
The tray is signed simply “Muck.” His full name was Muck Borders.
“He was quite a character and was well-known around The Dalles,” Marilyn says. “He was in and out of town and hung out in bars, but would paint things for a little cash.”
Mark says he can see Wiley hiring someone who was down on his luck.
“Wiley was a real kind old Southern gentleman who talked with a Southern drawl, so I can see him maybe doing that,” he says. “But we looked and looked for a signature.”
Lacking that signature, the evidence is inconclusive. While the similarities to Laura’s tray are easy to see, the style was a popular one during the Depression era.
The house will soon leave McDaniel family ownership for the first time in almost a century. As Mark and Marilyn prepare to say goodbye to the house, they would love to know if anyone has a more conclusive answer to the question of who painted their mystery murals.
Anyone who has information about the murals is asked to contact writer Kathy Ursprung at (541) 370-5191.