Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals

Three Ages of Phoebe Goodell Judson

Refer to caption
Three Ages of Phoebe Goodell Judson by Mordi Gassner
Lynden, Washington Post Office
Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

The rich and poignant history captured by Mordi Gassner’s mural, “Three Ages of Phoebe Goodell Judson” serves as a tribute to the settlers of Lynden, Washington where it is displayed on the interior wall of the local post office. This mural, completed in 1942, is divided into three cohesive scenes, each depicting the life of Phoebe Goodell Judson – the first non-Native woman to settle in Lynden (1870). Warmly referred to as the “Mother of Lynden” and a “Doer of good deeds,” Judson spent the majority of her life there (“Judson, Phoebe: 1831-1926”). Commissioned to work on this post office project, Gassner quickly discovered that the community of Lynden had already decided on a theme for him. This mural was to feature its leading lady arriving in Western Washington, raising her family, and creating a modern industrial town (Marling).

Written on the lower left corner of this mural are the words “Phoebe Goodell Judson finds her ‘Ideal Home.’”  The phrase “ideal home” is referencing Judson’s personal memoir, A Pioneer’s Search for an Ideal Home, which was published just prior to her death in 1926 (“Phoebe Goodell Judson, ‘A Pioneer’s Search for an Ideal Home’”).  In this scene, a young Judson, is disembarking from a canoe, accompanied by what can be assumed are three of her children, as well as two Native American guides. Although the artist does not provide the viewer with a specific reference which would identify the tribe, one can speculate that they are members of the Nooksack tribe.

The Nooksack people inhabited present day Lynden (located in the far northwest corner of Washington State, near the Canadian border) as well as the divide between the Nooksack River and the area surrounding Mt. Baker. Their occupancy also included Bellingham Bay and stretched North into Canada as well. The direct translation of Nooksack means “always bracken fern roots,” which illustrates their consciousness of nature. (“Nooksack Indian Tribe”).

Two hundred and fifty years ago, the population of the Nooksack people was estimated to have been around fifteen hundred people, with its current membership at upwards of two thousand. Prior to European influences on housing, traditional Nooksack villages were comprised of cedar plank longhouses, which were predominantly located along the Nooksack River between Deming, Washington and what is now modern Lynden (“Nooksack Indian Tribe”).

The Point Elliott Treaty of 1855, an agreement between the United States government and the Native people of Western Washington, greatly impacted the Nooksack people. This treaty established an exchange of land for “certain government services,” but preserved fishing, hunting, and gathering rights. This treaty did not result in a reservation for the Nooksack people; instead they were ordered to move onto the Lummi Reservation. Despite continued efforts to remove them, the Nooksack refused to relocate. In an effort to avoid military force, the federal government permitted the Nooksack people to remain in the Nooksack Valley (“Nooksack Indian Tribe”).

While this Native American tribe remains active today, their Salishan language has gradually become extinct, with its last fluent tribe member passing away in 1977. Some accounts suggest that intermarriage between tribes, which was common by the 1820s, partly contributed to their diminishing language. In addition to “upriver dialects of Halkomelem” replacing those spoken by the Nooksack people, European settlement brought the introduction of the English language which also aided in this loss (Galloway).

Gassner successfully portrayed many of the cultural differences between Phoebe Goodell Judson and her Native American counterparts. At the far left of the mural, Mrs. Judson arrives on shore with her left hand extended, reaching toward the opportunity before her. Her pose and her clothing, strongly reminiscent of depictions of saints or other holy figures, frames a puritanical undertone to her appearance and arrival in this new land.  The contrast in color as well as content - the skin toned minimal clothing of her escorts as compared to her conservative dress - serves to highlight Judson as the subject of this panel and establishes her beginnings as the mother of Lynden.

The idea of Mrs. Judson as the founder and matron of Lynden is further highlighted in the magisterial pose illustrated in the center panel of this mural. Looking at this section one sees a middle-aged Judson sitting at an ornately carved desk decorated with a bushel of corn. Surrounded by her family and dressed in a royal blue gown, Judson is depicted writing her memoir as her husband stands thumbing through the various pages.

The rightmost panel portrays the eventual bounty of her labors: agriculture – shown through animal husbandry – and industry where the painting reads: “Lynden’s Industries Attest Nature’s Abundance.”  This section is meant to display what modern Lynden looked like to Judson. In the far distance sits a factory whose smoke blends in with the shifting clouds. Below stands two adolescent boys with their esteemed bull as a plump turkey rests behind one of Judson’s granddaughters. Her granddaughter kneels down, holding two chicks while eyeing a passing rooster. Binding these two scenes together, a young child sits spelling out words with alphabet blocks. These words, which include: corn, salmon, beet, sugar, lumber, etc. represent “products of an ideal Lynden.” (Marling)

Mordi Gassner’s career as an artist proved to be both lengthy and successful. He was educated in New York City at the Parsons School of Design. In the early years of the 1920s he worked as a set designer for Hollywood, and by the end of that decade Gassner had been granted two Guggenheim Fellowships. With these grants he spent two years in Italy developing murals. These were later displayed in both Brooklyn and Washington DC. In addition to the mural he created in Lynden, Gassner also contributed murals to several other United States post offices (“Obituaries: Mordi Gassner, 95, Designer and Painter”).

By Tracie Byrne Takisaki, MA


Galloway, Brent D. "The Original Territory of the Nooksack Language." International Journal of American Linguistics Vol. 51 No. 4 (1985). University of Chicago Press. Web. 12 Oct. 2015

“Judson, Phoebe: 1831-1926.” n.p. n.d. Web. 10 Oct. 2015.

Marling, Karal Ann. Wall-to-Wall America: A Cultural History of Post Office Murals in the Great Depression. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1982. Print.

“Nooksack Indian Tribe.” n.p. n.d. 10 Oct. 2015.

"Obituaries: Mordi Gassner, 95, Designer and Painter." New York Times. 14 Jan. 1995. Web. 10 Oct. 2015.

“Phoebe Goodell Judson, ‘A Pioneer’s Search for an Ideal Home.’” Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest. n.d. Web. 10 Oct. 2015.

“The Three Ages of Phoebe Goodell Judson – Lynden, WA.” n.p. 2015. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.

Indians at the Post Office