Maxwell, Ora (1871-1932)

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 12/16/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10011

Ora L. Maxwell was a Spokane librarian who in 1915 founded the Spokane Walking Club, which would eventually evolve into the Spokane Mountaineers, one of the most important outdoors and environmental organizations in Eastern Washington. Maxwell was a Renaissance woman, well known in Spokane for her intellect, her literary knowledge, and her love of the outdoors. She cultivated a warm relationship with the nationally known poet Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931). She presided over the circulation desk of the Spokane Public Library for many years. Her advice was sought by a generation of Spokane readers and researchers. Upon her death in Spokane in 1932, she was praised for her intellectual power, her intimate knowledge of the book world, and her enthusiasm for both the outdoors life and the life of the mind.

Itinerant Girlhood

Ora Littlefield Maxwell was born in Port Byron, Illinois, on a date that is hard to pin down. She gave her birthdate as October 14, 1872, in a U.S. passport application she signed in 1924. However, the 1900 U.S. census record lists her month of birth as October 1871. Other census records indicate birth years ranging from 1872 to 1875. Her  niece Florence Kirk, who spent years researching Maxwell's life, believed her birthdate to be October 24, 1871. Kirk said that Ora was the only child of a short-lived union between her mother, Emma, and John Maxwell. 

Her mother was remarried to Francis (Frank) Greene when Ora was a child, probably in Missouri, where he worked for the Rock Island Railroad. Ora was brought up in her mother's new family, along with two half-sisters, Florence (called Flossie) and Helen Greene. Frank Greene was a railroad man who worked for several rail lines and eventually became a superintendent of the Lake Superior Division of the Northern Pacific Railway. The family moved often, living at times in Fairfield, Iowa; Grand Forks and Mandan, both in the Dakota Territory; and Red Wing and Duluth in Minnesota.

According to her obituaries, Maxwell was educated at Hardy Hall in Duluth and at Loretta Abbey, a Catholic high school in Guelph, Ontario, near her stepfather's hometown of Garafraxa, Ontario. It's no stretch to imagine Ora to be an uncommonly bright student. She was "gifted with an unusually brilliant and retentive mind," according to one of her obituaries ("Ora L. Maxwell, Librarian ...").

Frank Greene quit the railroad and moved to Spokane in 1894 to pursue other business ventures. In 1899, he moved the family to Anacortes; moves to Port Townsend and eventually Seattle followed. Maxwell, in her 20s, went off at some point to take courses at the Wisconsin State Library School, where she learned her lifelong profession.

Books, Literature, and Travel

Sometime around 1903, she began working as a secretary at the Los Angeles Public Library. Maxwell was passionate about books and literature, and by this time she had apparently developed another passion, travel. She saved up enough money from her secretary's salary to make frequent trips to Europe, usually in the company of woman friends.

In 1906, Maxwell returned to Spokane to teach at Brunot Hall, a Protestant boarding and day school for girls. She may have been lured back to Spokane by her sister Flossie, who in 1903 had married Charles E. McBroom. He was a Spokane banker who would soon become president of the Exchange National Bank in Spokane. Ora Maxwell apparently taught at Brunot Hall for only one year. She disappears from the Spokane City Directory in 1907 and does not show up again for several years. Kirk believes she lived in New Orleans during this period.

She evidently moved back to Spokane in 1909 to live in the McBrooms' home at 418 W Seventh Avenue. She would live in their home the rest of her life. By 1911, Maxwell was working as stenographer at her brother-in-law's Exchange National Bank.

Beloved Librarian

Sometime in 1911, she became the secretary to George W. Fuller (1876-1940), the head librarian of the Spokane Public Library. Fuller was also a scholar, author, and chronicler of the region's history. Maxwell quickly moved up in the library ranks, becoming the library's superintendent of circulation by 1915 and deputy superintendent by 1925. She presided over the circulation desk for almost two decades -- Spokane's readers could hardly check out a book in Spokane without meeting Miss Maxwell.

She became a beloved and respected figure among the city's researchers, scholars, and lovers of literature. Fuller, her longtime boss, said that Maxwell was Spokane's "adviser in reading for 20 years" ("Ora L. Maxwell Taken ...").

"Miss Maxwell, virtually always at the main desk, came into contact with hundreds of people daily," said her obituary in the Spokesman-Review. "Besides her intimate knowledge of the book trade, she knew books, and for years her advice has been sought and followed by library patrons" ("Ora L. Maxwell, Librarian ...").

She had a reputation as a stylish dresser, partly because she had acquired some of her wardrobe during her travels to Europe. Her niece described her as a "very, very lovely lady" (Vestal).

One of her obituaries described her this way: "Gay of spirit, cultured, well-educated, hers was a soul entirely free from self-interest or petty pride. One of rare intelligence enhanced by the advantageous contacts of a full and eventful life" ("Spokane Club …"). Yet attracting men was not high on her list of priorities. Kirk described her as a "woman's woman" who "didn't want to have anything to do with men" (Vestal). She never married.

Attracted to Vachel

"She seems to have been 'picky' about her social acquaintances, most comfortable with women, yet clearly attracted to intelligent men," according to one scholar (Higgins).

There was one man in particular to whom she seemed to be attracted: Vachel Lindsay, one of the most famous poets in the U.S. In 1924, Lindsay had taken rooms in Spokane's Davenport Hotel and was considered the city's poet-in-residence. Maxwell and Lindsay met that year, not long after Maxwell returned from a tour of England and Europe with a female friend. Kirk does not believe her aunt had an affair with Lindsay, who had recently married a much younger woman named Elizabeth Connor, but she does believe they shared a kind of spiritual love.

Lindsay wrote several warm inscriptions to Maxwell in his own books. One inscription, dated April 29, 1925, read:

"My dear Ora Maxwell: --
You're a very charming
And very distinguished
Citizen of the Universe.
I hereby write and draw
For you a new poem.

Signed and sealed
Nicholas Vachel Lindsay " (Higgins).

Another Lindsay inscription, from 1927, in a copy of an essay by writer Ralph Adams Cram, is addressed to "My Dear and Very Faithful Friend -- Ora Maxwell" and includes a quote from poet Edwin Markham that begins:

"My love is higher than
Heaven where Ta[u]rus wheels,
My love is deeper than the
Pillared skies" (Higgins).

"They seem, indeed, to have shared a deep bond," wrote Shaun O'L. Higgins, a Lindsay scholar. "Perhaps Ora provided a perspective that a young wife like Elizabeth could not" (Higgins).

Passion for Walking

Maxwell had one passion that we can be absolutely certain of -- walking. She was such a hiking enthusiast that in 1915 she chartered a new club, the Spokane Walking Club, along with four other library staffers -- Ruth Yeomans, Reba Lehman, Margaret Glendinning, and Mabel C. Hutchins. Maxwell was elected president and before long the club had 15 members, all women librarians.

Maxwell was re-elected president in 1916. That same year, the club voted, not without some dissension, to allow men to join. A photo in the Spokesman-Review in June 1916 showed Ora Maxwell and 17 other hikers (women and men) under the headline, "These Declare They Just Adore Hikes of 20 Miles a Day." Maxwell and the other women were dressed in long skirts, hats, scarves, and boots. The story that ran with the photo said:

"An organization of outdoor lovers, which has traversed most of the trails leading to nature's beauty spots within 20 and 30 miles of the city, is the Spokane Walking Club. The club has a membership of more than 30 and in the weekly hikes can always be found from 15 to 25, who concede that walking is their favorite pastime. … The all-day trips are planned to cover a distance of from 12 to 20 miles. Afternoon trips of six to eight miles are enjoyed occasionally" ("These Declare ...").

By 1917, the club had grown to 35 members who embarked on weekly hikes to "historic sites" around Spokane, "with their pedometers on their hips" and "thermos bottles and ham sandwiches in knapsacks" ("Get Out the Ham …"). A news story about the club said:

"The club members take their lunches and board street cars. At the ends of the car lines, the hikes start. At noon a campfire is built and lunch served. Outdoor games are played" ("Get Out the Ham …").

Some of the excursions were more ambitious. In August 1917, nine members of the Walking Club, five of them women (but not, apparently, Ora Maxwell), went on an eight-day excursion to "cross Glacier Park on foot" ("Glacier Park"). They established a "club record of 105 miles", with one member going 137 miles because of side trips ("Spokane Hikers").

"Outfitting for the trip was a joy in itself -- skirts were not to be worn!" wrote R. Belle Colver, one of the party, in an article describing the trip. "I was lucky enough to have stowed away in the attic my old 'gym' suit and I made it do" (Colver).

In 1921, the name of the club was changed to the Spokane Mountaineers, to reflect its broadening scope. By 1922, the club had sponsored 300 walks, 33 in 1921 alone. "The average mileage last year was 9.8 miles, or 326 miles for the season, with two overnight excursions," reported the club president ("Mountaineers Club Elects"). The club's membership in 1922 was 58.

Outdoors Legacy

We don't know how long Maxwell stayed active in her own club. She was in her mid-40s when she started the club and served as president only the first two years. She had suffered from bouts of asthma all of her life and she may have found these strenuous walks increasingly difficult. One of her obituaries mentions that she "suffered years of ill health" before her death in 1932.

Yet after her death her modest club went on to play an outsized role in the Inland Northwest's outdoors, conservation, and environmental movements. The club was incorporated as the Spokane Mountaineers, Inc. in 1935, "with the tradition of developing an outdoor fellowship and responsibility for preserving wilderness values of the Inland Northwest" (Ream). The club's first climb took place in 1935 and climbing became an increasingly important part of the club. Today, the club's activities include backpacking, climbing, bicycling, skiing and -- just as in Maxwell's era -- day hiking.

Several world-class climbers, including John Roskelley, Chris Kopczynski, and Kim Momb (1956-1986) received their early training in the club's Mountain School. The club has long been active in clean-up projects, conservation-futures issues, and wilderness acquisition.

Maxwell's legacy lives on in the hikes and projects of the Spokane Mountaineers. And she was a woman of many parts, which is clear from the eulogies that poured forth upon her death, after complications from an operation for "stomach ulcers," on February 15, 1932 ("Ora L. Maxwell, Librarian ..."). Said one writer in the Spokesman-Review's society pages:

"(She) was beloved not only for her invaluable assistance to patrons of the public library .., but she was (also) possessed of so many admirable traits of superior womanhood … Her intellectual power was a strong stimulus to the thought of women, strong enough to be master of all subjects. She was tolerant in all things. … She had the charm, the graciousness, the magnetism and personality to make her a favorite in any circle she graced, but she preferred the more busy life, through the outlet of her intellect" ("Spokane Club …").


Sources: "These Declare They Just Adore Hikes of 20 Miles a Day," Spokesman-Review, June 18, 1916, p. V-2; "Spokane Hikers Do 105 Miles in Circle Tour from Chalet to Chalet," Ibid., August 26, 1917, p. 2; R. Belle Colver, "Spokane Walking Club Views Glacier Park on Foot," Ibid., August 26, 1917, p. 2; "Mountaineers Club Elects," Ibid., January 10, 1922, p. 7; "Ora L. Maxwell, Librarian, Dies," Ibid., February 16, 1932, p. 6; "Many at Maxwell Rites," Ibid., February 18, 1932, p. 6; "Spokane Club Has Two Members and They Meet Once Each Week," Ibid., February 21, 1932, Part Three, p. 1; "They Can't Leave High Peaks Alone," Ibid., April 7, 1934; Shawn Vestal, "Family Historian Recalls the Tale of the Librarian and the Poet," Ibid., July 20, 2011, p. A5; "Ora L. Maxwell Taken by Death," Spokane Daily Chronicle, February 15, 1932, p. 1; "Spokane Walkers Hit Glacier Park," Ibid., August 3, 1917, p. 8; "Get Out the Ham Sandwiches and Pedometers, We're Off," Ibid., February 13, 1917, p. 10; Shaun O'L. Higgins, "Revisiting Vachel Lindsay's Spokane Years," The Vachel Lindsay Newsletter, August 10, 2011 (www.keepandshare.com/doc/3056126/vla-newsletter-4-pdf-august-6-2011-5-23-pm-508k?dn=y); Stephen Thorning, "West Garafraxa Man Led an Exciting Life in U.S.," The Wellington Advertiser website accessed November 30, 2011 (http://www.wellingtonadvertiser.com/index.cfm?page=colDetail&itmno=182); Lorna Ream, History of the Spokane Mountaineers, Spokane Mountaineers website accessed November 27, 2011 (http://www.spokanemountaineers.org/); Jim Kershner interview with Florence Kirk, Spokane, November 29, 2011.

Related Topics:   Biographies | Environment | Women's History

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