In today’s world, Georgina Klitgaard’s painting might have sparked carping and a slew of talk-radio rant that it was wasteful government spending. In the late 1930s in the town of Goshen, N.Y., however, it absolutely delighted many of the town’s citizens.
All over the United States we have public art remaining today that is courtesy of the “stimulus” money of that time period, the New Deal. The Running of the Hambletonian Stake, an oil painting, is one of those artworks. It graces the small lobby of the U.S. Post Office in the Orange County town of Goshen, recalling a time when this village, then a place of about 3,000 people, each year hosted one of harness racing’s elite events.
Goshen’s post office building, located at 20 Grand St., and designed by E.P. Valkenburgh, opened in 1936. It’s in the Colonial Revival style popular for many public buildings and post offices of the era. Its stately look, red brick, and symmetry hearken back to America’s colonial roots and traditions.
Goshen’s somewhat-dark post office lobby looks like it hasn’t changed in decades, with heavy wood and bronze lockboxes. To the right and above as a customer approaches the teller’s window, hangs the oil-on-canvas mural of the Hambletonian, just one inch shy of 12 feet wide and 5-feet-5-inches tall, dominating one wall. It shows seven trotters racing around the track, the back four shadowy in the dust. You can almost feel the speed, rhythm, and lightness of the two trotters leading the pack. Beyond in the left rear is a packed wooden grandstand. The course is set against a peaceful scene of lush green grass, verdant trees, and clouds on the horizon, evoking the era and yet somehow timeless.
Kicking Up a Controversy
In post offices across the land, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal funded murals that would accomplish two objectives – provide work and income to artists who struggled like many others through the Great Depression and promote American values through various scenes. People often generically call such murals “WPA art” for the Works Progress Administration’s relief program for artists. However, the Treasury Department’s Fine Arts Section was responsible for the post office murals, holding competitions and awarding commissions, according to EnRoute, a National Postal Museum publication.
The Running of the Hambletonian Stake
In this milieu, the Goshen mural actually generated controversy at the time. When the Fine Arts Section selected Klitgaard, a Woodstock painter and muralist, to design and execute a mural for the Goshen post office, the official letter urged her to visit the town to determine what aspect of Goshen’s history or activities might be most suitable for a mural. She complied. According to a book on post office murals entitled Wall-to-Wall America, Klitgaard interviewed people in Goshen and came away convinced that the town’s “consuming passion” was horse racing, especially preparing for and hosting each summer’s Hambletonian, a historic competition among trotters.
Apparently, the choice of subject made the folks in Washington mighty skittish. Ed Rowan, one of the federal program’s overseers, “was aghast,” explains Wall-to-Wall America. “Low-life racing topics were not considered proper for the adornment of public buildings, whatever Goshenites said.”
Still, the locals won out. The Hambletonian Stake and harness racing were to Goshen what the Little League World Series and baseball are to Williamsport, Pa. The town and area had long been the site of classic races and standardbred farms, and is dubbed “The Cradle of the Trotter.”
Then, from 1930-1956, its track, Good Time Park, hosted the Hambletonian, harness racing’s premier race and part of its Triple Crown, for 3-year-old trotters. (The competition is named after Hambletonian 10, the legendary Orange County horse who sired 1,331 foals.) In Goshen, the Hambletonian attracted overflow crowds and national media attention from the first, according to The Hambletonian Society. Given all of this harness racing devotion, Goshen’s postmaster got involved, convincing federal bigwigs to allow Klitgaard to paint the famous trotters’ race as the mural’s subject.
The go-ahead didn’t stop Klitgaard’s headaches, however. For many months and even after she obtained the approval of townspeople for the color sketch on display at the post office, Klitgaard received criticism from the Fine Arts Section for her rendering of the racecourse and the trotters, according to Wall-to-Wall. The post office finally installed the mural in 1937. Letters praising the mural came in, and a local drive ensued to sponsor a second mural, though it never came to pass.
Window on the Past
During my visit to the post office, those buying stamps or sending off packages didn’t often seem to glance at the mural. But if you look up closely at the painting, you get the mood of the event that once captured the fancy of the town: the intense concentration of the two harness drivers vying for the lead, the packed grandstand, the dust coming up off the course. All are locked in to the spectacle on a beautiful day.
Klitgaard went on to produce many fine landscapes and portraits, painting the land, light, and the moods of the seasons around Woodstock, nearby in the Catskills, and afar in New England or the South. Her home was in Bearsville and had a view of the mountain vistas surrounding Woodstock. The artist died in 1976. The Fletcher Gallery in Woodstock held a show of her paintings in the spring of 2009, noting that Klitgaard’s work straddled the chasm between realism and expressionism.
But it may be her horse racing mural that most catches the past life of a town. More than seven decades after it was unveiled, Klitgaard’s Hambletonian painting hangs in a very weathered post office lobby, reminding Goshen that it once was the place to see the world’s best trotters.
The leading horse and driver: The Running of the Hambletonian Stake
If you want to explore the history of harness racing and Goshen and Orange County’s place in the sport, you can visit the Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame at 240 Main St., Goshen, N.Y.