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New Rhinelander mural honors impact of Starks family, including UW’s Lelah Starks Elite Foundation Seed Potato Farm and Rhinelander ARS

A new mural on the Airpro Fan & Blower Company building in Rhinelander, Wisconsin honors the Starks family, the namesake of UW’s Lelah Starks Elite Foundation Seed Potato Farm, among other founders of vital businesses in the city. The mural was celebrated during a ribbon cutting ceremony on Sept. 3. that was attended by Becky Eddy, superintendent of the Rhinelander Agricultural Research Station.

Eddy was invited to the event by Airpro “to join us as [one of the] representatives of the Starks family and of the Lelah Starks Elite Foundation Seed Potato Farm and the University of Wisconsin that has helped make Rhinelander what it is today.”

CALS operates two potato farms in the Rhinelander area, both results of a gift from pioneer seedswoman Lelah Starks and both serving her aims to promote the development of new potato varieties and ensure high-quality seed potato production. The Rhinelander ARS is located seven miles east of Rhinelander. Since the early 1940’s this farm has undertaken research to create new varieties of potatoes including russet, red, yellow, and specialty potatoes.

When a promising variety is found it is passed along to the Lelah Starks Elite Foundation Seed Potato Farm, dedicated by CALS Dean Leo Walsh in 1984. That farm, managed by the Seed Potato Certification Program, is located eight miles west of Rhinelander. Its mission is to produce disease-free seed potatoes. The potatoes begin in a sterile laboratory before moving to greenhouses and the field. Private seed potato growers plant the seed on their farms, and after one or two years, their seed potatoes are sold to production farmers.

The idea for the mural came from Keith White, president and founder of Airpro Fan & Blower Company, who wanted to recognize vital business in Rhinelander in a public way. The mural spans the west wall of the Airpro facility and features 24 founders of businesses that have helped the Rhinelander community thrive since 1886. The mural displays these business in chronological order within gears, leaving empty gears at the end to be filled by future business founders.

“It’s a tribute to what we have cumulatively accomplished and the vibrant legacy of Industry’s contributions,” says White. 

Madison-based artist Alicia Rheal, along with eight others, painted the mural on pieces of mural fabric, a fabric that allowed the artists to paint anytime and anywhere. After painting, the pieces were glued down on the brick wall at Airpro, then coated with an anti-vandalism solution. The creation of the mural started in December of 2019 and ended over nine months later in September.