|The following includes excerpts
from an article in Marion County History, Volume XIII written
by his friend, Al Jones.
Ben Maxwell was born in Salem on February 25, 1898 at 574
North 15th Street. His childhood home, of 1860's vintage,
was razed in the 1930s. In his characteristic plain-spoken
manner he explained his early interest in history by saying
he was reared in a family of old people who talked about
His father was I. N. Maxwell who came to Oregon from Tennessee
in 1869. The elder Maxwell taught school at Eola in Polk County
after being a lawyer and mining judge in Idaho. Bens
mother was Medora Hayden Maxwell whose parents had arrived
in Oregon in 1852.
In 1904, Ben Maxwell entered East Salem School (later known
as Washington School) located at 12th and Center Street (the
site of the present day Safeway Food & Drug.) When Washington
School was razed in 1949, Maxwell photographed its final days
with his Speed Graphic camera.
In 1917 he graduated from Salem High School (today the Meier
& Frank department store occupies this property) and from
Oregon State University in 1925. At college he studied history
and journalism, followed by a year of law training."
Ben and his wife Louise bought their home in 1926 and he
started working for the Capitol Journal newspaper in 1939
on a free-lance basis. Steve Stone, former Capitol Journal
city editor, once said, Ben just came down and went
to work but wasnt employed formally. I just
saw him breezing around the office and that seemed to be the
way George Putnam hired people.
Because Maxwell packed his camera on every quest for historical
stories, he was able to illustrate the articles he wrote for
newspapers including the Capitol Journal, the Oregon Journal,
the Oregonian, and several magazines. He recorded on film
at least thirteen governors, many old-timers now gone, covered
bridges now missing, and several buildings and homes no longer
standing. He copied hundreds of rare photographs, which, in
turn, have been copied over and over by later researchers
and feature story writers.
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."
Among his favorite stories were those of the coffin maker
in Salem who, tiring, took a nap in a coffin where he was
found by a shocked and grieving relative and of the keg of
beer being delivered to hopeful gold miners on the Santiam
River, only to have the keg fall from the wagon and split.
Another story recalled the christening of a ferry at Independence
in October 1945, by Mayor Maurice Butler, who used a gallon
of buttermilk instead of champagne. This dedication happened
on the same day as a guillotine execution in France of Pierre
Laval on charges of treason. As luck would have it, the Capitol
Journal accidentally mixed some lines of type with the resulting
story indicating that Lavals head fell into the buttermilk.
About his hometown, Maxwell said Ive always regarded
Salem as a good place to be born, a nice place to die in,
but a dull place to live. About history he said, It
is more comfortable to live in the past than in the present
because you can eliminate what you dont like about the
past. You have to live with what you have in the present.
His self-evaluation was wrapped in one quip: Accomplishments,
small; hobbies, none; joys, few.
When Ben Maxwell died in 1967, his vast collection of historic
Salem photographs were donated to the Salem Public Library
where the prints are being scanned into a computerized database,
making this unique resource increasingly available to Salem
citizens as work progresses.
Since the Maxwell's were childless, his widow, Louise, left
to the library many boxes of artifacts including rolled panoramic
photographs and drawings, ledgers, albums, poster-sized mounted
collections of postcards, and personal papers. The library
staff hopes to one day fully catalog and organize these miscellaneous
local treasures. Maxwell's legacy will share this valuable
collection of local history with those who live in Salem today
and with future generations.