Welcome to The Cy P. Ferring Website created and maintained by Gary Olsen on garyolsen.com

The Murals of

Senior High School's lovingly restored Lamb-Hedeman Auditorium is the finest example of Arts & Crafts Movement interior design, but it also contains Depression Era murals by local painter, Cy Ferring that represent an incredible art treasure the value of which is beyond measure.

Photos and Story by Gary Olsen with contributed historical data

n the large mural depicted above is a splendid example of regional painting style made famous by Thomas Hart Benton and celebrated Iowa artist from this same era (the 1930's) Grant Wood. The slightly elongated and heroic figures, the characters depicted from African American boat hands unloading supplies on the riverbank to an obviously wealthy family perhaps supervising their burgeoning capital investment in the form of a steam powered sawmill in the third panel. All levels of society are depicted including a Civil War soldier. But who is the artist that painted these beautiful murals? It was Cyril P. Ferring, a Dubuque native.

When I first saw the murals at Senior High as a college student back in the 1960's, I knew I had discovered a treasure. It was so inspiring, I promised that I would learn more about the artist. My growing enthusiasm for interior design and architecture made me love the murals and the magnificent auditorium in which they reside even more. Later, when I became an employee of the district, I vowed that I would do everything I could to preserve and save these murals. Fortunately, there were several in our community who agreed with me, and they shouldered the responsibility to preserve and save them for all time.

These are the people and organizations who have helped preserve the auditorium and murals and to whom we owe a great debt of thanks:

  • The Dubuque Senior Educational Foundation
  • The Dubuque Community School District
  • The Dubuque Community Building and Grounds Crew
  • The Dubuque Racing Association
  • The Falb Family
  • The Henry Family
  • The Mozena Family

Cyril P. Ferring was an artist and graphic designer, and he ultimately wound up in Chicago where he met with much international success. He illustrated very popular children's books such as How Life Begins (Chicago Book House for Children 1935). I've been trying to find a copy of it, and I think I found one on e-Bay.

Cyril P. Ferring attended school in Dubuque and graduated from Dubuque High School in June, 1919 (predecessor to Dubuque Senior High School).

In May of 1934, he was sent to England to make sketches of King George's Jubilee that would be used later for advertising. Royal events like anniversaries were often celebrated with advertising specialties like tea sets, silk banners, and badges upon which the likenesses of the Royal Family were depicted.

Cy Ferring's work is best known among Dubuque residents as a series of prints of Dubuque scenes that were published and can still be found in many homes throughout Dubuque. At one time the Dubuque Golf & Country Club had images drawn by Cy Ferring laminated in its bar (long gone sorry to say). His illustrations of Dubuque landmarks and some original paintings are still in the hands of Dubuque families and some are in the collections of the City of Dubuque and the Dubuque Museum of Art.

Not too long ago, I was at an estate auction where I discovered a complete set of Cy Ferring prints laminated in of all things placemats.

But let's talk about these magnificent murals that grace the walls of Senior High School's Lamb Hedeman Auditorium which was recently restored to its finest Arts & Crafts architectural-style details thanks in large part to private donations.

First of all, as a painter myself, I marvel at the detail and movement of the composition. His use of background colors and hazy detail in that background make the foreground images pop. Ferring's technique produces incredible depth.

Since the murals were restored by Gary Germaine of Dubuque not too long ago, the colors shimmer in beautiful harmony. Ferring's palette was decidedly warm.

I particularly love how he depicts his figures. The Indian standing with his hand on the tree is positively heroic in stature. If you look at the detail of the first and largest mural, you may see what appears to me a young Abraham Lincoln lounging on the deck of the riverboat on the left.

Figures in the mural are slightly elongated, statuesque, and they evoke the style of figure painters of the early to mid 20th Century like Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood, two of my favorite artists of the 20th Century. Cy Ferring taught art and figure study at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts.

The sky and trees are evocative of another great illustrator of the period, N.C. Wyeth, an artist and illustrator like Ferring whose work was made popular in the Scribner Classics, Ivanhoe, Robin Hood, Treasure Island and many more.

There are all kinds of figures and details in the murals you can't see from the floor of the theater. In the Agriculture Mural, behind the farmer as he plows the field, two children are seen running toward him with what appears to be lunch! There are other interesting details that you may find upon your close inspection of the photographs I've taken and are acceessible by clicking on them which will download the high resolution images into your browser.

The bluff line in the background looks almost identical to the two previously depicted bluffs in the mural but with fewer trees. As steamboats plied the Mississippi River, vast forests of trees on both sides of the river all the way to Minneapolis were harvested for fuel and lumber. Trees had to be cleared for farms and the wood used for building cabins initially, but later the logs floated down river to sawmills like the one depicted in the third panel. The lumber and millwork industry thrived in Dubuque for nearly 100 years of the city's early history. I just completed the design for a book on this industry that we are publishing for author, Carole Loetscher working with my design partner, David Palmer. The book is called Wood,,, The History of Farley & Loetscher Manufacturing Company - Once the Largest Millwork Company in the World (click on the cover below to see an enlargement of the cover).

There was some controversy among students at Senior in the '70s and '80s that the depiction of the African American dock hands in the mural was racist. I would counter that Ferring was merely depicting life on the Mississippi as it was in the 1800s. Most of the roustabouts, deckhands and dock workers at the time were African Americans, and they were not necessarily indentured but paid well for their labor. River transportation gave opportunity to countless African Americans in their northward migration during the 1800s. There were several safe houses in river towns all along the Mississippi from Hannibal, MO to Dubuque, IA that offered protection to runaway slaves.

It's a good thing Senior High School is heated by steam and radiators. This actually served to preserve the murals against soot. There is not a lot of natural light in the auditorium, so sunlight couldn't bleach the colors nor cause any deterioration. The murals are almost perfect today as when they were painted, though there has been some restorative work, of course.

About the Auditorium

The murals are a wonderful complement to the Arts & Crafts Style interior design made popular during the first half of the 20th Century. Examples of it can be found throughout Europe and North America. In the United States, the terms Arts & Crafts denotes the style of architecture, interior design, and decorative arts that prevailed between the dominant eras of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, or roughly the period from 1910 to 1925. *

Perhaps the greatest practiotioner of the Arts & Crafts Movement was Frank Lloyd Wright. All aspects of his designs were infused with the hallmarks of the movement, quarter sawn oak furniture and woodwork, leaded windows purposely tarnished patina copper fixtures.

Inspired by the writings of John Ruskin and a romantic idealization of the craftsman taking pride in his personal handiwork, it was at its height between approximately 1880 and 1910. However the design inspiration of the movement persisted well into the 20th Century with the architectural designs of Wright, Gustav Stickley (famous for his furniture designs), Lester S. Moore, Charles Robert Ashbee, and several others.*

There are several examples of this design movement in Dubuque, Iowa, most notably the pavilions of Eagle Point Park and, of course, several houses built in the early half of the 20th Century. There are some structures being built today that evoke the now classic style. Buildings belonging to Premier Bank in Dubuque located on Kennedy Road and at Asbury Plaza.

*Source information from Wikipedia the Online Encyclopedia

Gary Olsen is a Dubuque artist and retired Media Developer for the Dubuque Community Schools. He can be reached by e-mail. If you can provide any interesting annecdotal or published details on Cyril P. Ferring and his life in Dubuque and Chicago, we would appreciate hearing from you

Click on these images and download larger, more detailed versions into your browser. The images on this page are actually small in comparison to the larger, high resolution images.You won't believe your eyes as you examine the details. See if you can find a young Abe Lincoln in the scene above. There are many more interesting subjects in these murals. Upon examining all three murals, see if you can spot the artist's sentiment on the impact settlement has had on the natural environment. The answer to that question is found in the articles below.
The murals consist of three panels, one large painting along the side of the theater and two smaller murals that flank the stage. Note how the murals when viewed from left to right show the evolution of settlement from the first steamboats and covered wagons bringing settlers to the region to agricultural development (above) and then manufacturing that followed as depicted in the panel below. Note how the same bluff line in the background is repeated, however, each time there are less trees. Perhaps Ferring was making an environmental statement. Also, look closely at the enlarged version (click on this image to download the larger, more highly resolved image), and see the figures in the background. There are all kinds of details that escape the eye because the murals are so high they resist close inspection.
The sawmill panel. Also note the famous Dubuque Shot Tower in the background and the front half of steam powered locomotive. The sawmill is also powered by steam.

What follows is the historical information we've discovered from Senior High School's own archives.

hile visiting Dubuque Senior High School a few years after it had been built, Cyril Ferring felt the need of some form of decoration in the auditorium which would soften its military plainness and add color to the otherwise somber walls.

This idea stayed with him and in 1929 he began work on the first mural, which hangs on the east wall.

In discussing the motif and appreciation of murals, Mr. Ferring said, "New art is coming from the Middle West. The Midwestern artists were the first to advance the idea that architecture and art should fit in with the surroundings."¯ To prove his point, Mr. Ferring explained that a mural is an architectural decoration which should be unobtrusive and produce a feeling of color and quiet satisfaction.

He stated also that murals are painted in such a manner as to keep the eye moving. This feature, according to Mr. Ferring, is very important-almost essential in a mural.

Because there are no vertical lines in the auditorium and the heavy, dark ceiling was accentuated by the light, blank walls, care had to be taken in designing the murals. They had to be planned in such a way that they would "keep the ceiling up"¯ at the same time preventing the walls from appearing too narrow. Therefore, before the murals were started, plans were drawn using uprights of dark color and a circular movement throughout the three paintings. The uprights were formed by dark-colored trees and towers, care being taken that the uprights did not appear too stiff. This effect was obtained by painting the uprights in different widths, by the circular motion of the rolling hills, and by the bending trees. A clear example of this circular motion can be found in the mural on the right side of the stage. The walk on which the three foremost figures are standing is effectively curved to retain the symmetry and proportion desired.

Each painting has a light and dark pattern. The river and trees in the background form the light patterns, while the figures and trees in the foreground supply the dark.

The Artist

Cyril P. Ferring , the son of the late Mr. and Mrs. F.D. Ferring of Dubuque is, himself, a native Dubuquer. He attended school in Dubuque and graduated from Dubuque High School in June, 1919.

In May of 1934 he was sent to England to make sketches of King George's Jubilee for advertising purposes.

He moved to Chicago where in addition to painting he did designing for various firms. He was also is an instructor in figure drawing and painting at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. 


The large mural on the east wall was painted during Mr. Ferring's spare time, the necessary expense was borne by the student fund, and is a gift from Mr. Ferring to the school. It was hung in its present location in the summer of 1935.

Because the area to be covered was long and narrow, Mr. Ferring chose transportation as a theme, it being a long subject which could be extended over a long¯ space, picturing early paddle wheel steamboats and the covered wagon motifs, with pioneer types arranged about them.

This photo, taken in the 1960s (I'm guessing) was sent to me from a former Dubuquer, the girl on the right playing with her brother a board game. Somehow her family acquired this working draft of the Ferring Mural and took it with them to the Pacific Northwest where it hung over their fireplace for many years. "We always admired and studied the painting over our home's mantle," she explained in her letter. "Its wonderful details and panoramic point of view continually reminded us of Dubuque."

Much like a musical symphony, three movements have been introduced into this decoration along with three counter movements and variations. By centering the attention upon the group to the left of the incoming Jo Davies, a southbound sidewheeler, the painting has achieved the necessary unity and completeness. Interesting grouping accents the varied characters which are found in this old-time boat landing. The mixing of cultured southern gentlemen with young farmers and scouts, the solemn Indians contrasted by the happy boatman behind them, the stevedores carrying crates, and the pioneers standing by their ox-drawn wagons represent many phases of life along the Mississippi at the time.

The two smaller murals which hang on either side of the stage were placed there in the fall of 1938. The expenses incurred in painting and hanging of these decorations were met through the student activity fund and by the alumni.

Following the theme of the first, these murals tell of the early settlement of the industries in and around Dubuque .


The mural on the left on the stage represents the breaking of the soil soon after the early settlers arrived in Iowa . The figures in the foreground are clearing the land for the plowman who is a little distance back. Still farther distant in the background can be seen the chimneys of the furnaces in which lead was smelted. Thus in a few striking moments three phases in the history of early Iowa progress are pictured.


The mural on the right side of the stage pictures Dubuque 's historic shot tower, with a foreground of logs being floated into Dubuque on the Mississippi River . The setting of this scene, presumably, is the Fourth Street extension somewhere near the present location of the athletic field.

Continuing with the early advancement and settlement motif, Mr. Ferring shows an early lumber mill, still in the process of construction, and two modes of transportation - rail and river.

Again in this mural, Mr. Ferring makes use of the circular motif, almost to a greater extent than in the other two. Even the woman's dress and the dock on which she stands have been painted with curved lines. A skillful but subdued blend of colors and shades is evident in this mural.

In all three murals the artist has displayed an unquestionable knowledge of the authenticity of dress characteristic of that period of history which he has endeavored to portray.


Mr. Olsen,

I came across your article related to Cy Ferring.  I was looking for information on him but more particularly for his second wife, Marian Ferring.  She was my first cousin, once removed.  Her mother, Marie, was a sister of my maternal grandmother, therefore she was my mother's first cousin.  Marian was also an artist. I knew Cy when I was growing up in Chicago.  As I remember him, he was a very quiet but very distinguished gentleman.  After he retired, he and Marian moved to Mexico.  My mother saved information related to their residence there.  

She eventually lost contact with Marian.  I believe this was after Cyril passed away.  She (my mother) was very distraught that she could not make contact with her any longer.  In her memory, I decided to see if I could learn more about their time in Mexico.

Have you found or know of any details of his move to Mexico? I have prints that he and Marian created for their holiday cards.  These were sent out many years ago, but I have saved them.  I  was aware of his murals in Dubuque.  They shared this information with me because in the 70's I lived in Iowa. Do you know if Cy has relatives still residing in Dubuque?

Thank you so much for your time and attention to the murals and to Cyril Ferring.

Karen Volante

Ms Volante:

Enjoyed your correspondence, however, I don't have any more information about Cy than is on the webpage and now, thankfully, what you have just sent me. In fact, if you wouldn't mind, I am posting this to the site in case someone who knows more about Cy Ferring can correspond with me, and, of course, I'll post whatever I find along with your letter.

There was a Ferring's Mobile Homes dealership in Wisconsin on the border of Wisconsin and Illinois (it's not in the same location if it exists at all anymore... there's a car dealership there, now), but I'm not sure what the relationship there may have been to Cy Ferring.  If you can get someone to scan those holiday cards and send them as attachments to an email, it would be wonderful to add them to the site.  You would be surprised the number of people who come upon that site and want to discuss the artist with me.  I helped campaign to save and restore the murals in the beautifully restored Lamb Hedeman Ttheater at Senior High School, the only Mission Style (Arts & Crafts Movement)  theater I know of in the Midwest.
Gary Olsen
Dubuque Community Schools Media Developer (Retired)