an old photo prompts an adventure of discovery

I can't always plan where my history hunting will take me, but it will often lead to surprising results. I received a call from Molly Keizer, a Whitehorse artist who is undertaking research for an independent study project.

I can’t always plan where my history hunting will take me, but it will often lead to surprising results.

I received a call from Molly Keizer, a Whitehorse artist who is undertaking research for an independent study project. You will be familiar with her work if you have seen her art creation at the corner of Main Street and Second Avenue. Commemorating Robert Service, it is a large chair and clerk’s desk, made in metal, reminiscent of the early days when Robert Service worked in the Canadian Bank of Commerce and penned The Shooting of Dan McGrew.

We examined dozens of books and photos illustrating the art that graced the walls of early Dawson City. One of the photos illustrated the interior of the Arctic Brotherhood Hall, today known as Diamond Tooth Gertie’s Gambling Hall, and operated by the Klondike Visitors Association. The photo was taken February 6, 1908.

The stage is closed off at the front by a large drop curtain upon which is painted a scene of a Roman Chariot Race. I think Molly said something like “I wonder who painted that?” I didn’t know, but I mentioned it to my wife Kathy, who has been scanning the newspapers for information about George Black. She had seen something that answered the question and within a short time, she had assembled an impressive pile of information.

The title of the large painting was Circus Maximus; the artist was Max Kollm, and the artistic work was completed around 1903.

Max Kollm was born in Germany in 1854. As a young man he studied under German artist Alexander Wagner, but in 1871, at the age of 17, he volunteered for service in the Prussian army and fought at the battle of Gravelotte. The following year, he emigrated to the United States.

I haven’t seen anything about his early years in the United States, but during the Klondike Gold Rush, he came north with his young wife, Anna Sophia.

He became actively involved in the Arctic Brotherhood, a fraternal order that was first constituted in Skagway on March 6, 1899. Kollm applied his artistic skill to designing the official Arctic Brotherhood membership certificate, and while in Skagway, named a mountain peak visible from the Skagway lodge in honour of the Brotherhood.

Kollm moved on to Dawson City, where he established himself both as an enthusiastic member of the Arctic Brotherhood, and as an artist. According to the Dawson Daily News, in 1904, “Kollm’s birch bark sketches and burnt leather Klondike scenes originated by himself … were highly prized.”

Over the years, his artistic talents were applied to many different projects. He had many European clients who commissioned him to produce authentic Klondike scenes for their collections. He continued to illustrate theatrical curtains for years, and by all accounts, made a decent living selling his artwork. In 1910, he applied his artistic talent to illustrating a book published by a New York firm.

In 2002, The University of Alaska Museum in Fairbanks offered a special exhibit entitled, Burned Into Memory: Images of Alaska Through Historic Pyrography. Samples of Kollm’s pyrographic art, in which scenes were burned into moose or caribou skin, were featured. You can see examples of this work if you go to the website: http://pyromuse.org/alaska.html.

Of particular interest to Yukoners, especially those living in Dawson, was the large drop curtain with the mural of the chariot race that I mentioned at the beginning of this column. Kathy remembers the curtain was still in use in Diamond Tooth Gertie’s into the early 1980s. By that time, she said, she could stand behind the curtain and look out at the audience through the holes. It was finally taken down around the mid-1980s and placed into storage kindly provided by Parks Canada. The Klondike Visitors’ Association did not have a suitable facility to store such a valuable piece.

Kollm did not stay in one place for very long. He returned to Europe in 1900, and again in September of 1904, but in February, 1906, he was back in the States, heading north to Alaska, after having painted the complex Allegory of the Arts on the curtain in the Columbia Theatre, in Boise Idaho.

In 1908, Max and Anna were leaving Fairbanks for the Lower 48, but the following summer, having just completed a mural in the new Arctic Club in Seattle, he was back in Dawson to fill orders for paintings of Dawson and area placed with him by “a number of millionaires in Europe.” Despite that, he had the time to create a large honorary membership certificate in the Arctic Brotherhood for Earl Grey, the Governor-General of Canada, who was visiting Dawson at the time. The certificate, burned into a full sized caribou skin, was displayed in Dawson before being shipped to Ottawa.

Kollm and his wife left Dawson for the last time, headed for Fairbanks in September of 1909. During the summer of 1911, he is noted as being back in Fairbanks hard at work painting. He and Anna were again in Fairbanks the summer of 1912. This time, the Fairbanks Arctic Brotherhood lodge honoured him for his contributions by presenting him an engraved gold watch at a farewell event prior to his departure for the south. It was his last visit to Fairbanks.

He wasn’t finished with the North, however. In 1923, he was back in Skagway presenting Warren Harding one of the original membership certificates, designed by him years before. Thus he bestowed upon the American president an honorary membership in the Arctic Brotherhood.

I have seen no evidence that Kollm ever returned north again. In 1930, the 76-year-old Kollm was living in Mill Valley, California. I don’t know when he died, but his widow Anna was living in San Francisco at the time of her death, in 1955.

So you can see how an innocent question about something in an old photograph can lead to an amazing adventure of discovery. Though this story is far from complete, it is impressive how much information was assembled about one of the Yukon’s best early artists in such a short time.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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