Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Toasts for Ben Maxwell and Al Jones

On Christmas it has become our custom to toast Ben Maxwell, on whose work nearly all local history depends in some way.

This spring, area historians, professional and amateur, lost Al Jones - who also happened to write about Ben Maxwell upon his death.

A generous toast to the memory of each!

Ben Maxwell

The obituary writers called him "the sage of Polk County" and "the bard of Eola Hills." Ben Maxwell died 44 years ago tomorrow. He was born on the 25th of February, 1898 and died on the 25th of December, 1967.

Maxwell was a raconteur and journalist. He loved stories. His articles and notes are the essential starting point for any research in Salem area history, though as a story-teller Maxwell's taste for flavor and color sometimes caused him to overseason the facts. He is unfailingly reliable for the big picture, but in the fine detail he cannot always be confirmed.

While this more than occasionally vexes Capital Taps, we also acknowledge our debt. And with our holiday tipple, we raise our glass. Prost!

Maxwell wrote for the Capitol Journal, the periodicals of the Marion County Historical Society, as well as for national magazines.

He was also a great collector of photos and clippings, and he donated over 5000 photos to the Salem Public Library. They constitute the Ben Maxwell Collection, images from which regular readers will often see here.

His obituary said:
Ben Maxwell - "the sage of Polk County"; "the bard of Eola Hills" - is gone. Living on, in the wake in life he created, is his memorial to the past he loved so well. Maxwell died of a liver ailment on Christmas in a Salem hospital, 68 years and 10 months from the day he was born into a pioneer family.

He was generally recognized as the Mid-Willamette Valley’s chief historian, particularly for Salem and Polk County. He said once, "The historical inclination grew on me like any other disease." Later, explaining why he continued his research and gathering of printed and photographic memories of history, Maxwell said: "It’s more comfortable to live in the past than in the present, because you can eliminate what you don’t like about the past. You have to live with what you have in the present."

Yet Maxwell lived in the present, too, and became well-known not only because he was a walking history book but for his colorful turn of speech. He described one politician as "nothing whittled down to a fine point." And he said of another that he "could hang a gate and daub mud on the inside of a chimney, but he never will write poetry."

Another of Oregon’s noted historians, state archivist David Duniway, called Maxwell "A great figure in the historical world. His work has been tremendous. He knew more of the history of Salem and Polk County than any other member of the community, and he expressed himself tersely and effectively in describing. it."
About his writing, Al Jones said
Ben's vocabulary added flavor to facts without loss of accuracy. He might refer to a certain politician as being “whittled down to a fine point” or to another early character as one who “could hang a gate or daub mud on the inside of a chimney, but could never write poetry." In describing early Salem hotels, he said: “In pioneer times, most so-called hotels were little more than flop-houses without facilities. The flea bag who scratched when he applied for a room was just as welcome as a dignified citizen who wore a plug hat and squirted tobacco juice through his whiskers."
The slight variations on the favorite phrases are amusing - and characteristic.

According to Jones, he also said:
I’ve always regarded Salem as a good place to be born, a nice place to die in, but a dull place to live.
(originally posted December 25th, 2009)

Al Jones

We never met Al Jones, but we run across his work constantly.

Many historic photos show his research or were preserved by him. Here's a link to 349 images from a search on his name, for example. (These two from the Grand Theater NRHP nomination images and form.)

According to the Statesman, he died Sunday at the age of 90. He was an old-time newspaper man, and we're sure the SJ will run a complete story. We look forward to learning more about him.

A tip of the pint. Godspeed.

(Capi Lynn's obituary has disappeared into the archives, but this feature from the early 2000s, and reposted in March of this year, is still live.)

(Reposted from this spring.)

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