"Elmer Stubbins: Itinerant Artist" Part I
Carroll County Times article for 29 March 1998
By Jay A. Graybeal
Many readers of this column are familiar with our native artist William
Henry Rinehart. Far less well known are a number of other local artists
who worked in the county during the late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries. Although they never attained Rinehart's international
renown, perhaps none was more colorful than Elmer Bloomfield Stubbins
(1868-1942) of Louisville near Gamber, who painted everything from
landscapes to bar mirrors. A sketch of his life was written by George
T. Wetzel for the March 1, 1973 issue of this paper:
"He walked all over Carroll county years
ago, snapping photos and painting numerous pictures. Because he never
signed his paintings, they are more scarce than hen's teeth. The only
recorded facts about him are on his gravestone: "Elmer Bloomfield
Stubbins. Born June 5, 1868. Died Sept. 23, 1942".
Certain oral tradition about him is yet current among the old people of
Carroll county. But until his son was found and interviewed, Elmer
Stubbins appeared more a shadowy legend than a real person. He may or
may not have been a great artist - that is left to the art critics. But
assuredly he was an interesting human being.
The majority of the following biographical sketch is based on material
supplied by Herbert Stubbins, his son; the rest of the other informants
are named in the story.
The parents of Elmer were William M. Stubbins and Rachel A. Williams
who were married in 1860 and emigrated from Pennsylvania to Carroll
county, Maryland. The father started the making of paper from rye straw
at the Caledonian mill on Morgan's Run near Gamber. The mother, who had
been a public school teacher in New Freedom, Penn., taught school also
in Carroll county, besides doing the mill's bookkeeping as her husband
had no education.
One sister and three brothers preceded Elmer into the world. Then he
was born in the family's home near the mill. Because he was a sickly
child, his mother taught him at home. Among his studies, she read him
the Bible seven times.
A self portrait of a Scottish great uncle hung in the mill office,
which Elmer admired and which Herbert believed influenced his father
towards art. When 12, Elmer started drawing in pastels while helping in the mill.
Eventually he was allowed to fit up a studio on the top floor of his
father's mill, the window of which room looked out on the mill wheel
and the northern light so preferred by painters.
Rembrandt he much admired. Herbert agrees that Elmer Stubbins may have
identified himself with the Dutch master, in that both were millers'
Visitors to the mill advised the mother her son had talent and should
go to an art school. Finally he was sent to the Maryland Institute in
Baltimore. But after one week of instruction, he returned home, his
reason being he felt well advanced of the elementary lessons they
He once attended a "house dance", where he asked one pretty girl for a
dance. When she petulently refused him, Elmer sat in a corner and
mischievously drew a charcoal sketch of her, frown and all; which was
passed around to the amusement of the crowd.
Riding occasionally on the Tolchester excursion boat across the
Chesapeake Bay, he drew charcoal portraits of the passengers for 10
cents a picture.
Oft times he would be called to a farm house where the family desired a
remembrance of a just deceased member. Because he lacked a camera he
had recourse to an unusual procedure. Elmer would prop up the corpse in
the coffin, make a charcoal sketch, then go home and transform it to
With all his art work, he modestly neglected to sign or date it.
He was away from the mill when his mother died in 1896. For some reason
his father then deserted it, and thieves entered Elmer's studio,
pilfering pictures and art supplies.
Sometime before 1900 John Klee (one of the three brothers running the
nearby Walnut Grove Mill) commissioned him to make a painting of it.
Procuring a flour bag used by Klee, Elmer soaked it in a mixture of
starch and glue to stiffen it to use for his canvas. On the reverse
side was the red and blue lettering: "Walnut Grove Mills -98 lbs.
Harvest King Flour".
On his finished picture there is no outside mill wheel as the water
from the mill dam came under and through it to turn the mill stones.
Behind it Elmer suggested the hill called the Devil's Back Bone. In the
right background was a dwelling house, still there today.
Characteristically, Elmer left it unsigned. Klee threatened not to pay for it unless he did. The result was "E. B. Stubbins" in the corner.
Elmer painted a second canvas of the mill but what date is unknown.
This second canvas is owned by Claude Oursler of Towson who obtained it
from his aunt, Molly (nee Sleysman) Klee, wife of Charles Klee. Though
it is unsigned Oursler affirms his aunt said Stubbins painted it.
Though smaller in size, this second mill picture is the better of the two as the artist lavished painstaking details on the mill stream.
Elmer married Mary Catherin Newton in Baltimore in 1903. That same year
the couple moved to Green street in Westminster where Elmer painted a
hunting scene on the mirror over a bar owned by John Lippert. When
Lippert sold out years later, he took this 16-foot-long painting with
An early photo taken of Elmer and his wife showed him to be the tall, slender and mustached man others, like Arthur Griffee of Gamber, recalled he looked
like. The wife's maternal grandfather (Shaffer) had a farm in the old
mining town of Louisville near Gamber. Here the couple settled in a
little two-room log cabin and Herbert was born in 1905.
Elmer now became a photographer with his purchase of an Eastman tripod
camera. One of his earliest photos was a snap of the humble home with
the year-old son sitting in front of it.
That small son suffered some malady that crippled him for the first
seven years of his life, so that he could not walk. Doctors at Hopkins
wanted to break some bones in both legs and operate to correct it. But
Elmer was not sure of their method.
So he himself tried strapping his son's legs to a board every night to
straighten them out. And in three months, the boy was walking.
Elmer, the photographer, pursued the same itinerant life he had
followed as an artist, wandering over the countryside, accepting rural
hospitality of a free meal and overnight bed from many farmers. When
Herbert was eight years old, he accompanied his father one whole year,
carrying for him the camera's tripod and sharing the nomadic life."
The Carroll County Historical Society owns the smaller of the two paintings of Klee
Mill mentioned in the 1973 article. The mill was demolished in a 1957
road building project after the mill dam broke and destroyed the old
road and bridge. The Stubbins paintings survive to help document the
site and his talent as an artist.