Something new has been added to downtown Freelandville to welcome visitors — a large mural on the side of the community museum. Staff photo by Jill Irwin
Something new has been added to downtown Freelandville to welcome visitors — a large mural on the side of the community museum. Staff photo by Jill Irwin
FREELANDVILLE — Martha Thomson, president of the appropriately-named Freelandville Improvement Club, jokingly says the town of approximately 800 residents once called itself the “Center of the Earth.”

But it’s largely known now to locals as the crossroads of family and hard work.

Anyone driving into Freelandville from the south, on Indiana 159, will see that motto reflected in the new mural painted onto the outside of the town's museum, one of a few remaining historic buildings in downtown.

The Freelandville Improvement Club selected Southern Illinois artist Robert Treece to design and paint the vibrant mural. Treece, whose work is typically categorized as abstract surrealism, also has a history of completing murals, such as one outside a diner in Olney, Illinois.

Thomson said she and other club members wanted the public art to reflect the town’s values of hard work, faith and family.

They also wanted to pay homage to a couple of local landmarks that are no longer there, such as the former school, which was demolished in the 1970s, and the old Osh Kosh Bigosh store, which was torn down just a few years ago.

The public art project received a small grant from the Knox County Community Foundation, but the majority of funding came from events and private donations.

While Thomson acknowledges that it’s difficult to see a financial return on the investment of public art, “the more you invest in it, the more people it draws,” she said.

And, she added, “a large body of research exists that claims there are numerous benefits to public art, particularly in rural areas.”

“Whether you’re a person coming through town every day, or just passing through once a year, this mural makes such a huge improvement to place-making,” she said. “It gives people a sense of community and literally brightens up the area.”

For Thomson and other Improvement Club members, their small unincorporated village is worthy of both beautification efforts and practical investments and improvements. Freelandville has officially existed for more than 150 years, and some residents date their ancestral roots to the area by more than 200 years.

“We have a strong history here, and we want to share that with you, but we also want to know your history,” she said. “We want people to know that they’re literally welcome here, and that’s what this mural says.”

It is, in part, those deep roots that keep the dozens of members of the Improvement Club working so hard. And, with no local governance beyond a town trustee, the club helps fill an organizational gap.

When asked what kinds of things the Improvement Club has done within the community, Thomson can’t help but laugh because of the wide range of projects the group has overseen in its 61 years.

“We helped get the pavilion built, and there we have a weekly market with artisans, farmers, and musicians,” she said. “We host the Dutchtown Days in August, we oversee the Parks and Recreation Department.

“We even paid for the street lights.”
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