By Shannen Kuest Skagit Valley Herald
MOUNT VERNON — The mystery of the original William Cumming mural recently discovered in the Breckenridge barn may finally be solved as new details about the painting’s history come to light.
The mural was painted as part of a National Youth Administration program for Burlington High School’s new Farm Shop, which was dedicated in a public ceremony on Oct. 29, 1941, Anacortes Museum educator Bret Lunsford discovered.
The mural’s origins were revealed when Lunsford obtained permission to look through Skagit Publishing’s archives. He wanted to examine back issues to see if the painting had been newsworthy 73 years ago, he said, and he quickly found what he was looking for.
“I didn’t know what I was going to find, but I got lucky — I found it within 20 minutes,” Lunsford said.
The Burlington Journal reported in 1941 that Cumming worked for more than six months on the painting, which depicts Burlington community history. The mural was meant to inspire and prepare students for an agricultural job market, Lunsford said.
This answer led to yet another question: How did the mural end up in a Skagit County barn?
Eva Pierson of Bow lived on the property where the painting was discovered with her family before the Breckenridges bought it in 1966, she said. To the best of her knowledge, the mural wasn’t in the barn when her family lived there, she said.
The Breckenridge family has formulated a theory on how the painting ended up in their possession, Tony Breckenridge said.
Tony Breckenridge’s father Edward died in 1990, and Tony Breckenridge’s brother moved into the family property. While knocking down a wall in the barn to make space for a wrestling room, he discovered the mural in a storage area above the wall. Mistaking it for a tarp, he passed it to Tony, who — after several attempts to get rid of it— turned it over for display at the Skagit County Fair this year.
Edward Breckenridge’s 82-year-old widow Charlotte said her late husband was a math, science and art teacher at Edison Elementary School in the 1960s. At one point in the mid-1960s, he was asked to clean out a storage room and turn it into an art classroom. The mural must have been moved from Burlington High School to Edison Elementary at some point, Charlotte Breckenridge said, and the historic painting ended up stuffed into a box in the storage room.
When Edward Breckenridge was told to get rid of the painting, he probably took it home because he didn’t want to throw it away, she said.
“I think my Dad knew it was a painting, but he figured the kids painted it or something,” Tony Breckenridge said. “The room was full of junk, so he took the painting home, stored it and forgot about it.”
The discovery of the mural has garnered national attention from art lovers and news outlets — an outcome Charlotte Breckenridge said she never expected. The Breckenridge family received phone calls about the mural from all across the country, she said.
“My life is simple,” she said. “This has been so mysterious and complicated.”
The painting is now estimated to be worth about a half a million dollars, said Seattle art dealer John Braseth, but is worth even more as a cultural asset. Five art historians have contacted Braseth about doing research on the history of the piece, he said.
“I met with Bill (Cumming)’s widow and it was very emotional,” Braseth said. “She kept saying how much he would have enjoyed this.”
The painting is currently being stored safely and has been insured, Tony Breckenridge said.
Despite the high price tag, the family doesn’t intend to sell the mural. They hope it will be displayed somewhere in Skagit County, Charlotte Breckenridge said.
“Money can’t buy happiness and health,” she said. “We want to keep it in the county where people will really appreciate it.”