February 26, 2024

Meet Maud Miller Hoffmaster

This painter was one of Traverse City’s most prolific women of the 20th century
By Ross Boissoneau | Feb. 10, 2024

A celebrated painter. An illustrator. A teacher. A building designer. A nomenclator.

Wait, what? Yes, Maud Miller Hoffmaster is credited with creating a well-known name, the term “litterbug.” And she was all those other things as well, yet the former Traverse City resident is less well-known than one might presume.

Painting Picture-Poems

Let’s rewind. Born in Manistee on Dec. 29, 1883, Maud Miller was forced to give up her first love, music, to care for her family. The eldest of five children, she ended up caring for her siblings, her ill grandmother, and eventually her father when he became bedridden. With little time to devote to music, she turned to visual art, sketching scenes of and around her home.

Her talent soon shone through, and she used the funds from selling some paintings to attend the Chicago Art School for six weeks—that was the extent of her formal training. It must have been enough, since she eventually became celebrated for her landscapes and other paintings.

Maud married Havillah Hoffmaster in 1904. Havillah was a clerk and manager-buyer for the home furnishings department at Hannah Lay Mercantile on the northeast corner of Front and Union Streets from 1904 to 1929, but he is better known for the construction of one of the area’s first golf courses. Ahgosa Golf Course was located near their home, at the intersection of today’s Munson Avenue and Airport Access Road. It operated from 1931 to 1952; the site is now home to Munson Foster Family Health Center.

While Havillah worked at the golf course, Maud continued to paint. Over the course of her life, Hoffmaster created more than 400 paintings, and her work showed in galleries and museums around the world. She was hailed as one of the country’s best landscape artists, and was cited in Who’s Who of American Women and Who’s Who in the Midwest.

Her most famous work may well be “The Country Doctor,” which she painted in 1922. Prints of it still hang in doctors’ offices across the country, though today it’s impossible to know how many survive. (Unfortunately—and perhaps ironically—it’s not displayed at Foster Family Health Center.)

The French art critics of the day were certainly enamored of her. Georges Bal, considered “the dean of all European art critics” per the Chicago Sunday Tribune, wrote of her, “The author can be placed among the greatest landscape painters of the day.”

Maud exhibited in Paris in 1928, where Bal called her works “picture-poems” of Michigan. She traveled to the show for the opening—no mean feat for the late 1920s. The next year, another prominent exhibition of her paintings took place in New York City at the Helen Hackett Gallery.

Expanding Her Craft

According to a 2017 piece in the Grand Traverse Journal, “The brother of Mrs. Henry Ford is said to have bought [Maud’s] first painting for one dollar. It was a small watercolor of a pine tree along Grand Traverse Bay.” From there, Maud’s paintings went on to be worth upward of $10,000.

Artists from across the world traveled to Traverse City to study with her, receiving instruction on how to paint landscapes, trees, and especially snowstorm and blizzard scenes. (There used to be more of those, we suppose!)

While she specialized in oil paintings of landscapes, Maud also created block prints, pastels, and etchings. She reproduced many of her artworks on postcards and stationery. Pieces in the Traverse Area District Library collection demonstrate a style and use not dissimilar to that of Gwen Frostic.

While her painting remained the bedrock of her career, she was an adept illustrator as well. Chicago Tribune art critic Eleanor Jewett wrote a series of poems for the paper and enlisted Hoffmaster to provide illustrations. That continued in their book Make Believe, a collection of Jewett’s poems each accompanied by a Hoffmaster illustration.

Hoffmaster also wrote, including Nee-Na: The Wild Flowers Good Fairy, a 1949 children’s book that she illustrated herself, and a 1952 novel The Path of Gold. The latter sold out its first printing.

Building a Quiet Legacy

But she didn’t stop there. The Mark Twain Society gave her an honorary membership in 1952. She was involved in multiple civic groups, including the Friendly Garden Club and the Traverse City Woman’s Club.

Hoffmaster’s love of the environment extended beyond her art. She is credited with helping start campaigns against throwing trash along the roads and waterways, and as the legend goes, she came up with the term “litterbug.” She even enlisted several neighbor boys to participate in her anti-litterbug crusade, getting them into an early iteration of what we’d now think of as Adopt-a-Beach or Adopt-a-Highway.

Maud also became friends with Joseph Maddy, the founder of Interlochen Center for the Arts, and organized the Fine Arts department at the National Music Camp, as it was then known. If by “organize” you mean build, well, she did that too. Maud designed the building, and even hauled some of the fieldstones used in its construction. She ended up serving as the supervisor of the department for 14 years.

So why isn’t Maud Hoffmaster better known today, at least among Traverse Citians? One reason could be recency bias. She died in 1969, and the bulk of her work was done in the 20s through the 50s. (Maud died Oct. 2, 1969, following a fall at her home earlier that year. Her husband had preceded her in death when struck by a car in 1964.)

Another reason? “She was a middle-aged woman,” says Melissa McKenna, the head of adult services and supervisor of the local history collection at Traverse Area District Library.

Indeed, Traverse City’s history is replete with stories about Perry Hannah, Conrad Foster, Albert Tracy Lay, Dr. David Goodale, Dr. James Munson, Governor William Milliken, and many others. While occasionally women—such as Helen Goodale, Elnora Milliken, and Helen Milliken—get mentioned, the number of influential women cited as historical figures in the area pales beside that of the men.

Nevertheless, her works have stood the test of time, and are still valued and desired today. Her paintings occasionally come up at auctions, and at the time of this writing, a first edition of Nee-Na: The Wild Flower’s Good Fairy was listed for sale at Ed’s Editions online for $100.

Photo courtesy of Traverse Area District Library: Maud posing in front of easel for a 1952 Chicago Sunday Tribune article.

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