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By Linda Emley
The Ray County Museum has 17 original Orval Hixon photographs that are signed by the man himself. These pictures are valuable because of each is a work of art that was actually touched by the man who created it. To me they are priceless because they are now a part of the local history that makes our museum unique.
There is no record of who donated these pictures to the museum, so I’ve made it my mission to find out the rest of this story.
I was beginning to wonder if I would ever find the answer and then I found a file at the museum that gave me a few more hints for my quest to find Orval’s story. I really enjoyed researching my story about Orval Hixon, but now I know I wasn’t the first person to tell Orval’s story in the Richmond News.
On Oct. 28, 1971, Clara Chenault had a full-page article in the News about our man Orval. It was titled, “Posterity through Photography is Destiny for a Ray County Boy.”
Clara Chenault was a lady that was a very important part of the early days of our museum, so I felt certain that she was involved in getting the Hixon pictures added to our collection.
I never got to met Clara, but I’ve always enjoyed her style. We have some of her files here at the museum and I can tell by the the things she saved that we shared the same goals and dreams for keeping history alive at our museum.
When she wrote this article in 1971, Orval would have been 87 and Clara was 56. I find this interesting because I just turned 56 a few weeks ago. I hope to have at least another good 30 years to work on the museum that Clara, I and many others have loved over the years.
The Ray County Museum first made the former Ray County Poor House its home in 1973, which was 40 years ago. It was officially dedicated Oct. 9, 1976, but that is another story I’m working on.
Since Orval Hixon died in 1982 and Clara was still here until 1984, it’s very possible that they worked together on adding his collection to the museum.
Last week, I spoke with Orval’s great nephew and he feels for certain that Orval visited our museum, which is “icing on the cake” for me. I tried to imagine Orval walking up the front steps, but then I realized that he probably came here to visit his father in the 1930s when his dad lived at the county poor farm.
Orval’s father, Charles Hixon, died in what’s now the museum building around 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve in 1936. Orval was 52 when his dad died, so I’m sure this place looked a lot different to Orval when he came to visit 20 years later.
Now let’s return to Clara’s 1971 article. I was 14 when Clara wrote her story, so I had boys on my mind and I didn’t read her article when it was first published. Once again, I would love to have a time machine so I could travel back to 1971 and introduce myself to Clara and Orval and ask them questions about this newspaper article.
Clara’s story had a grade school picture of Orval taken by James Riley, who would later be Orval’s mentor at the Riley Studios in Richmond. It also had some of Orval’s vaudeville pictures and a picture of Orval as a young man.
My favorite picture in Clara’s article is the original postcard drawn by Orval Hixon in 1908 that is the featured postcard for my story. When I first bought this postcard years ago, I didn’t have a clue who Orval M. Hixon was. Clara’s article explained it as follows: “During his wanderings, Orval Hixon kept in touch with Jewell Mayes and happenings in Ray County. He made this postcard that was used as a half-page spread in the Missourian to commemorate the ‘local Option” victory in 1908. (Original courtesy of Orval Hixon).”
Now I must find the 1908 Richmond Missourian newspaper that featured this postcard.
I love the way Clara started her article. “PIONEER. A member of a military unit, a digger or minor (in Russia a boy scout), the earliest work of a kind in a given field, one who goes before preparing the way for others to follow.’ so says Webster.
“Ray County has attracted and fathered all of these. One of the latter born in Ray County is little known locally, yet is recognized nationally. That man is Orval Hixon.”
Her article gives many of the details of Orval’s life and his career.
The 1971 Richmond News article had a copy of a letter from Orval to Clara Chenault. “Mr. Hixon Recalls Richmond Memories. We sent Mr. Hixon a copy of the Sesquicentennial special edition in appreciation for his wonderful cooperation on the story above (and) this is the letter he sent in reply. ‘Dear Mrs. Chenault: Thanks for the newspaper. I enjoyed reading it and recognized so many names. I remember watching the Hamacher mill burn down about 1892 or ‘93. I fished for sunfish in their pond nearby and used their sacks, which had printed on them J.R. AND G.N. Hamacher, for picking up hickory and walnuts nearby. Knew and went to school with Anna and Ralph Hamacher.
“ ‘In those days times were dull. The bandstand was east of the courthouse and on Saturday night the band would start off with Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight. We went to a picnic perhaps once a year to St. Cloud’s Springs, where we heard the mayor recite the Declaration of Independence or watch a ball game that usually ended in a scrap. There was an occasional football game, croquet was played and horseshoe-pitching contests.
“ ‘Richmond had no swimming pool so went to the Crooked or Bohannan rivers. I also skated there if they froze over.
“ ‘There were few jobs for boys, but we did what we could. Pulled weeds in yards, worked in the wheat fields at thrashing time, and I found work in the local newspaper.
“ ‘ I was also property boy at the Auditorium when it was built in 1901, borrowing and later returning needed furniture for particular scenes. When the great hypnotist Santanilla was there for four nights, my helper and I watched him work carefully. We tried our hand at it. Believe it or not I found it an easy thing to do. I hypnotized eight boys and found that two of them responded to mental telepathy. I know many people think it is fake, but when it works, it is easier than faking.
“ ‘When I moved to Kansas City, I still experimented with it. I would catch a stranger’s eye on the sidewalk – take 10 or 15 steps – turn around and catch them turning also. I can’t explain it, but neither can I explain why or how they broadcast color from the moon. I remember the Mosby Opera House. I saw young performers there that I later photographed. (Author’s note: the auditorium that Orval is talking about is the Farris Theatre and the moon reference was because this was written two years after we saw a man land on the moon.)
“ ‘I knew Tuck Milligan and watched him lead his company up the street during a parade after World War I. I belonged to the 7th regiment, but the Armistice was signed on the 11th before we were to leave on the 13th of November. I went to school with Eugene Farris and his father urged me to take up law and room with Eugene.
“ ‘On Halloween, buggies were to be found on top of the Santa Fe Depot, wheels were taken off wagons and rolled ‘cock-a-hoop’ down Water Tower Hill.
“ ‘A prevalent story of the time about the cyclone that was often told: a group of Mormons were in a house on East Main and were told to place their hands on their Bible and they came to no harm. That may or may not be true – but I do know that when my father built his house on the hill, the first thing he did was to build a good cyclone cellar where we hastily ducked into with a basket of food and candles at the first gust of wind.
“ ‘Sincerely yours, Orval Hixon.’”
Orval Hixon once again made the Richmond News Aug. 10, 1976 when some of his art work was on display at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The paper includes a reprint from the Lawrence Journal-World about Hixon’s Kennedy Center exhibit. Former Richmond newspaper publisher Dr. Martin Mayes was in Washington and saw the exhibit. He commented that Hixon’s pictures were the best in the show.
Orval Hixon was a man who walked the street of Richmond as he dreamed of being an artist. Now I can dream that Orval Hixon once walked the halls of our county poor farm, also known as the Ray County Museum.
You can reach Linda Emily by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or see her in person during business hours at the museum, Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.