Fred Maxwell

Fred Maxwell was born in Denmark and spent part of his youth in the care of an English sea captain and his wife–sailing around the world, eventually becoming a merchant seaman. Maxwell arrived in San Francisco in 1890 and traveled over the west, prospecting and painting landscapes. He settled in Yerington, Nevada, in 1912 and entrusted a number of his paintings to the Nevada Historical Society. He disappeared in the central Nevada desert in 1932; a prospector named "Burro" Smith discovered his body four years later.
Below is reprinted with permission from the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly.
Nevada Historical Society Quarterly
Volume 33, Summer 1990, Number 2
Phillip I. Earl
FRED MAXWELL (1861-1933)
Fred Maxwell was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, on September 29, 1861, the son of an Englishman descended from the baronial Maxwells of Scotland and a well born Danish woman who died of complications of the birth. The senior Maxwell had become a Danish national after his marriage and had taken a prominent part in the political affairs of his adopted country. Following the death of his wife, he placed his son at an orphanage and joined the Danish army. In 1864, he died of wounds sustained in an engagement with the forces of imperial Germany in the province of Schleswig. When his wife's relatives learned of his death, they took the boy out of the institution and gained control of the money his father had left for his care. Shuttled from home to home for the next four years, he ran away at the age of seven and was picked up on the waterfront by an English sea captain and his wife who took him as their own. His youth was spent sailing to ports of call all over the world, and he later served in the British Navy and became a merchant seaman. [1]
"Those were days of sailing vessels," his daughter, Anne E. Maxwell, was later to write of him, "and he learned to sew like a woman repairing and making sails. I can never remember him undertaking a chore with a needle that he did not wear his sailor's palm to ward off pricks of the needle. Naturally he acquired a picturesque vocabulary which, in later years, was quite a trial to our mother, especially in the presence of children. However, it was just vocabulary, never profane or blasphemous." [2]
She also remembers her father carving model sailing ships and picture frames, embroidering seascapes in silk stitchery, and working in leather. "He painted a dainty miniature scene for me which he framed in hand-turned white birch bark to take as a valentine to the banker's daughter's party," she recalled. "Like any child, I was ashamed of it as it was home made, not comparable in any way to a purchased trifle. I still wonder if it was appreciated by the family of the recipient." [3]
In 1890, Maxwell left his ship in San Francisco and headed inland. He was arrested on a vagrancy charge a few weeks later and put to work on a road crew. Following his release, he migrated over the Sierra Nevada to Mason Valley. He secured work in a mine near Yerington, but moved on to Montana in 1891 where he found work as a miner at Neihart. He also spent some time with the American Indians of Montana and the Dakotas, and both daughters recalled that he taught them Indian chants and dances when they were small girls. [4]
On January 4, 1893, he married Anna Greta Paatalo, a Finnish girl, in Great Falls. He was working in the mines at that time and doing some prospecting on the side. He had also taken up painting–seascapes, ships, and ports he had visited–and had made the acquaintance of Charles M. Russell, the famed cowboy artist. Russell helped him with his landscapes, lake, and mining scenes, but he continued to do seascapes, "one in particular," Anne recalled, "in the Winslow Homer tradition of a furious storm at sea, the waves heaving, winds and water tossing a tiny sailing vessel in the billows–the sky as dark and ominous as the sea as if to offer it hope." [5]
Two children, Fred, Jr., and Anne, were born in Great Falls, and five more followed after the family moved to Neihart, Montana, in 1896. Because he was one of the few miners who could read and write, Maxwell became involved in the organization of a local chapter of the Western Federation of Miners. In 1897, he was one of several union lobbyists who appeared before the Montana state legislature to speak in favor of legislation requiring mine owners to provide better ventilation and improved timbering in the underground workings. Both measures passed that session. [6]
Montana's harsh winters bothered Maxwell and he came down with pneumonia in 1912. A physician told him that he must find a dryer climate. He wrote to some friends in Yerington, Nevada, and was able to secure work at the Bluestone Mine near Mason. The family moved in the summer of 1912 and Anne and another daughter who had remained in Great Falls to attend school joined them in July 1913. He was working for the Mason Valley Mining Company by that time and the family was living in Yerington. He had resumed his painting and had begun to concentrate on mountains and deserts in the primitive style he had developed in Montana. Neighbors purchased occasional paintings and others were raffled off, the children going door to-door selling chances at twenty-five cents each. They tried to get him to try portraiture to bring in some ready cash, but he refused. As Anne put it in a letter to the writer, "Father never attempted portraiture, not even of his own children. He never used a model, even for still life. After Grandma Moses became recognized, I had the feeling that Father's work would compare favorably, but never thought that we could assemble enough for a show." [7]
Maxwell also continued prospecting, developing some claims in the Marietta District, Huntoon Valley, and elsewhere in Mineral County. His children know only that several of his properties were later taken over by others who put them into production. "Father was a many-faceted man," Anne wrote, "and under intelligent management could have capitalized on many of his talents. His knowledge of geology exceeded that of most geologists. At college, my professor was astonished at my knowledge of the subject and amazed that I could often recognize elements he himself was in doubt about–learned at Father's heels cracking rocks as he did in the palm of his hand and being told all about the pieces." [8]
In 1918, the last of the Maxwell children graduated from high school in Yerington. Anne and Esther joined an older sister in Oakland, California, and Fred, their mother, and a son, Harry, moved to a mining claim in Huntoon Valley. "He would never consent to live in California," Anne recalled, "because he hated the state for its treatment of the working class–the Native Son policy–probably a carryover from the Royal Spanish Grant days." [9]
Mrs. Maxwell and their son lasted two years at Huntoon before following the rest of the family to Oakland. Fred stayed, certain that his claim would one day pay off, but also pleased to be shed of his family obligations. "He was a wonderful small-child parent," Anne remembered, "but abdicated when he thought we had grown beyond him." The family visited him from time to time, bringing up canvas, paints, and brushes, but he would never consent to go back with them. "Father was always glad to see us," Anne wrote, "but also glad to have us go so that he could pursue his regular routine, living in hope that the next stroke of the pick would make us all wealthy. He had many opportunities to obtain capital, but refused all corporate offers with offers of stock issues. Mining stock had an unsavory reputation, at best, and he would have no part of it. He knew he would do right and expected others to do likewise without any legal entanglements." [10]
During his years in Huntoon Valley, Maxwell built a cabin in Belleville, where he would stay when he occasionally worked as a track laborer on the Nevada-California Railroad. Thomas Paulidis, a retired section foreman, told this writer that Maxwell always had three or four paintings under his arm when he came in from his mine. He occasionally gave a painting to a fellow trackman, Paulidis recalled, but could not remember if he had ever had one himself. Thomas Williamson, a retired Southern Pacific Railroad superintendent living in Oakland at the time of this writer's 1974 interview, also remembered Maxwell and his paintings. He had had one at one time. He remembered it as having been a desert scene with peaked volcanic mountains in the background. The sagebrush was depicted as growing in rows, orchard-style, he said, not as a sage-strewn landscape would look at all. He said that he gave the painting to a Japanese restaurant owner in Mina when he retired and had not thought of Maxwell for years. [11]
Nick Marakas, interviewed in November 1973, remembered Maxwell coming into his market in Mina for supplies every month or so. He was told that Maxwell gave paintings to his friends around town, he said, and remembered that he himself had taken two of them in payment for a grocery bill. He said that he no longer had them and thought that they had been thrown away by his sister-in-law following the death of his brother, a partner in the store. Richard Baker of Hawthorne, grandson of the owner of the Baker Hotel in Mina, remembered seeing Maxwell around town and said that several of his paintings hung in the hotel at one time. He also said that he recalled seeing paintings in several Hawthorne homes and thought that at least one depicted Walker Lake and Mount Grant. [12]
By the late 1920s, Maxwell was seeking wider recognition for his work. In a letter to Jeanne Elizabeth Wier of the Nevada Historical Society on June 14, 1927, he said that he was forwarding two paintings and would send some seascapes if they met with her approval. Of his artistic endeavors, he wrote, "Please understand I work hard in my mine all along and that it gives me some excuse for not having the work up to date. The hide on my hands is like horse hide, but I have tried to do the best I was able to do under my difficulties." He also described himself as "an old seafaring man and have had great many years of experience as a sailor in foreign ocean scenes." [13]
In a reply on June 27, Miss Wier accepted the paintings, telling him that they would be registered as a loan since the last legislature had not made an appropriation for the society and that she might be forced to close the doors. Should the museum's collections be confiscated, she wrote, she wanted to be sure that the paintings would not be taken. Replying on July 3, Maxwell told her that she should consider the paintings her personal property. "I am sorry to hear that things are looking black for the Society at present," he wrote. "I believe that it is a good thing for the future to show the coming generation what we have been doing here for sometime past." As to other examples of his work, he informed her that "there is [sic] lots of my paintings in Nevada homes today given by myself which you would not be able to buy for either love or money. I have lots of friends and I have raised a large family." [14]
In another letter, written on July 18, Miss Wier thanked Maxwell for the paintings. "I shall be very glad indeed to be the owner of them in case this institution is abandoned," she wrote. "It is certainly fine of you to give them in this way." She also invited him to stop by the Reno museum if he were ever in town. [15]
Miss Wier and Fred Maxwell probably never met, but another four paintings were donated to the society and are still a part of the collection today. The University of Nevada also has two Maxwells, donated either by the artist or someone else years ago. For several years, the paintings hung in the research room of the Special Collections Department of the Getchell Library on the Reno campus. Department personnel knew nothing of their provenience until this writer discovered them in 1975. A subsequent search of the university's archives failed to reveal the donor.
In February of 1932, Maxwell was caught out on Teel's Marsh when a blizzard struck. He survived the ordeal, wandering into Marietta three days later in a delirious state, half frozen and muttering about having talked to angels and visiting a white city with streets of gold. Just a year later, on March 12, 1933, Deputy Sheriff Bert Walsh was informed that Maxwell had not been seen for some time and had not been into Mina for his monthly supplies. Fearing that he had again been trapped in a storm, Walsh drove out to his mine to investigate two days later. The old prospector was nowhere to be found, the date February 22 being the last day crossed off his calendar. There had been a bad storm that day and Walsh feared the worst. Returning to Marietta, he organized a search party which included several old-timers familiar with the area, Joe Rutty, "Burro" Smith, Ike Gaillic, and Bill Gash. Maxwell's son, Harry, was notified, and he and Esther's husband, Arnold Ballwanz, came up, but a three-week search of Huntoon and Teel's Marsh turned up neither a body nor any evidence that Maxwell had perished in the storm. [16]
Over the next four years, friends and family members continued to search the area. On March 24, 1937, "Burro" Smith came upon Maxwell's remains on the edge of Teel's Marsh. He first thought that he had come upon an old overcoat, but found that it covered the body of his friend. The skeletal remains were propped up in a sitting position against a large rock as though Maxwell had gotten as far as the marsh and decided to sit down and rest, never to rise again. Leaning on the rock was a large package addressed to his son in Oakland. Smith opened it, finding a painting. After the body was brought into Mina, a formal inquest was held. Mineral County authorities were unable to locate Maxwell's family at that time, and his remains were turned over to his friends, who laid him to rest in Mina's small cemetery on March 27. [17]
The six paintings Maxwell had donated to the Nevada Historical Society were later put on exhibit in the small museum established in Reno's State Building in Powning Park. They were mentioned in the tourist guide to the state published by the Nevada Writers' Project in 1940, but Maxwell himself remained an obscure figure. In 1968, the paintings were again exhibited in the society's new museum on North Virginia Street. Russell R. Elliott took note of them in his history of the state in 1973, but it was not until this writer researched Maxwell's life and published an article in Nevada Highways and Parks Magazine in 1975 that the veil was lifted. The article interested Tony Radich, director of Reno's Nevada Art Gallery, who contacted Esther about a show and drove to her home in El Cerrito, California, in September 1976 to pick up fifteen canvases, including the painting found with Fred Maxwell's body in 1937. The Nevada Historical Society and the University of Nevada loaned their Maxwells for the show which was held at the Nevada Art Gallery in October and November, 1976. [18]
The Maxwells belonging to the Nevada Historical Society had meanwhile been taken down and placed in storage in the course of a renovation of the museum in 1978. In 1985, Peter and Turkey Stremmel contacted Esther and her husband about an exhibit. Turkey did some restoration work on the collection and selected nine for a show which opened at Stremmel Galleries on October 30, 1985, Nevada Day. Harry died in 1988, and Esther is the last of the Maxwell children. [19]
Over the years, this writer has been told of other Maxwells in private collections. In an interview in 1976, Esther said that a niece in Ohio had four of them. Anne gave others to friends in Fresno, California, and Harry apparently left several behind in a house in San Leandro when he moved several years before his death. Because of their visual inexactitude, Maxwell's seascapes, mountain scenes, and desert panoramas are considered to be American primitives. It is unlikely that he thought of himself as a primitive painter, however. His daughters do not recall seeing art books around the house, and those interviewed by the writer know nothing of this school of art and never heard the artist use the term. They simply recognized that Maxwell could do something that they could not. Those of us who appreciate the works he left behind take them for what they are, personal views of times and places that had some meaning to the artist in the course of his long life.
1. Letter to author from Anne E. Maxwell, 29 April 1975. (Hereafter referred to as Anne Maxwell Letter.)
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4.  Esther Maxwell Ballwanz, interview with author, Reno, Nevada, 28 October 1976; Anne Maxwell Letter.
5. Anne Maxwell Letter.
6. Ibid.; Esther Maxwell Ballwanz to author, 2 July 1988; Esther Maxwell Ballwanz, interview with author, 28 October 1976.
7. Anne Maxwell Letter.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. Roy Ladd, interview with author, Marietta, Nevada, 17 August 1974, 4 August 1980; Thomas Paulidis, interview with author, Hawthorne, Nevada, 17 November 1973; Thomas Williamson, interview with author, Oakland, California, 17 March 1974.
12. Nick Marakas, interview with author, Mina, Nevada, 17 November 1973; Telephone interview with Richard Baker, Hawthorne, Nevada, 19 October 1973.
13. Fred Maxwell to Jeanne Elizabeth Wier, June 14, 1927, Jeanne Elizabeth Wier Papers, Nevada Historical Society, Reno, Nevada (hereafter referred to as Wier Papers.); James T. Stensvaag, "The Life of My Child: Jeanne Elizabeth Wier, The Nevada Historical Society, and the Great Quarters Struggle of the 1920s," Nevada Historical Society Quarterly XXIII (Spring 1980): 3-20.
14. Jeanne Elizabeth Wier to Fred Maxwell, 27 June 1927, Wier Papers; Fred Maxwell to Jeanne Elizabeth Wier, 3 July 1927, Wier Papers.
15. Jeanne Elizabeth Wier to Fred Maxwell, 18 July 1927, Wier Papers.
16. Roy Ladd, interview with author, Marietta, Nevada, 16 August 1974; Mineral County Independent, 22 March 1933; 29 March 1933; 5 April 1933.
17. Arnold Ballwanz, interview with author, Reno, Nevada, 28 October 1976; Mineral County Independent, 31 March 1937; Reno Evening Gazette, 25 March 1937.
18. Nevada: A Guide to the Silver State (Reno: Nevada State Historical Society, Inc., 1940), 104-05; Russell R. Elliott, History of Nevada (Omaha: University of Nebraska Press, 1973), 380; Phillip 1. Earl, "He Painted His Paradise, Fred Maxwell: Nevada Primitive Artist," Nevada Highways and Parks Magazine 35 (Summer 1975): 20-23; Esther Maxwell Ballwanz to author, 17 January 1990.
19. Phillip 1. Earl, "3 Top Nevada Artists Honored," Reno Gazette-Journal, 27 October 1985; Esther Maxwell Ballwanz to author, 2 July 1988.

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