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Reprinted with permission from Home Town History, Hometown magazine, September 1990, copyright Ohnick Enterprises

F.M. Steele, Photo Artist

By Nancy Ohnick

It seems that every time I turn around lately I come across the subject of this issue’s history lesson, Francis Marion Steele. I have taken note when I have seen the name because of his connections with the old covered wagon in the courtyard at the Dalton Gang Hideout. An old newspaper clipping from the early days of the hideout reveals that “the wagon belonged to F.M. Steele, and he used it in his quest to capture the American cowboy and his cattle drives in photographs.” (After visiting with James Hoy, an authority on F.M. Steele, it may have more likely been the wagon he used in Dodge City where he had a tourism photography business at Boot Hill later in life. )

Francis Marion Steele started to work and learn the photographic business at the age of thirteen, under G.T. Atkinson of Kansas City, Missouri. Referring to himself as a “tourist photographer and artist,” he spent fifteen years of his life roaming around the Great Plains taking photographs.

In Dodge City he established his career as a traveling photographer in 1890. A genius with the camera, he made a living traveling around southwest Kansas, Oklahoma Territory, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado, taking shots of cattle drives, ranch life and farming operations from 1891 to 1905.

Steele first came to Meade around August, 1894, touring the whole area, taking pictures. His interest was in cowboys and people at work. A buggy rigged to carry his camera and developing equipment transported him as he followed the round-ups.

It was while touring the area the he met Pink Fletcher who was teaching school east of Meade at the time. Pink was the daughter of Crocker P. Fletcher.

 

Francis Marion Steel (1866-1936)

photos courtesy of Emporia State University

Francis "Frank" M. Steel -  c. 1900

   

Mr. Steele advertised in the Meade Globe newspaper that he has the newest equipment for taking flash light photos and in his studio he had an exhibit on display of at least fifty ranches and farms south of Meade. He guaranteed his work, which he claimed to be first class. Steele had “a specialty of crayons, pastels and a copying machine as well as a camera that would take good pictures on cloudy or clear days.” He guaranteed that his photos wouldn’t fade.

He rented the old Mosser Gallery in Meade, and furnished it with exquisite taste. He papered, carpeted and fixed it up in the latest style with fine backgrounds, swings, rustic chairs, fences and the necessary paraphernalia for taking fancy as well as plain photographs. He was prepared to do all classes of work that completed with that done in large cities.

All negatives were sent to Kansas City to an expert artist, who did touching up in the most scientific and careful manner and any little defects that may have appeared were carefully and skillfully remedied.

The artist’s gallery provided a convenient toilet room, so patrons could arrange their cloths and hair.

On May, 26, 1995, Francis married Pink Fletcher in the home of the bride.

While Francis continued his traveling photography in and around the area, Pink Steele went to live and work for a doctor in Liberal, and later after the birth of their daughter she returned to Meade and taught at the Lakeview School for several years.

Francis set up a studio on the Fletcher farm for several months in 1896, and advertised a large spot light which had been added to his equipment. In 1887, another daughter was born, Just two months later Pink Steele divorced Francis and he moved on to purchase a studio in Bucklin, Kansas.

Stelle re-married in 1900, to a woman by the name of Sarah "Sadie" Harp from Mullinville. He was a Rock Island special photographer in Greenburg, and started touring the country again in 1903, taking photos of the bumper wheat crop. That year he advertised photographs in natural color. He added an improved telephoto camera designed to make objects appear closer for the photographer. In 1906, Steele purchased a gallery in Dodge City. He also had a studio in Hutchinson where he continued to work until 1920, when he moved to McCook, Nebraska for 10 years.

He finally returned to Meade in 1935, where, after 35 years, he saw his daughter Edith Sutherland and met his four grandchildren for the first time. That summer Francis showed pictures and paintings at the Boy Scout Building at the park for the Old Settler’s Reunion in Meade where his granddaughters helped him set up his exhibit.

Shortly after this, at the age of sixty-seven, Steele moved back to Dodge City where he started selling pictures and postcards from a chuck wagon at Boot Hill. Later he went to work for the Aiken Studio and died an accentual death in 1936.

Francis Marion Steele left behind a legacy of an entire “way of life” captured on film. Often touted around Meade as, “a no-good bum who wouldn’t even stay put and take care of his family,” Steele must have seemed eccentric to the ordinary people in the 1890’s. But, one only has to look at his photographs of a time lost forever to appreciate the passion he had for his craft, and the sacrifices he made to pursue it.

 
Sadie Harp Steele, F.M. Steele's second wife.   Jane Poteet Harp, Frank and Sadie Steele.
    (photos courtesy of Lynnmarie Fancher)

Editors Note: The Clark County Historical Society put together a book of Steele’s photos titled “Kings and Queens of the Range.” Don Goodnight shared his copy with me as I wrote this story years ago. I have since obtained my own copy and have made it a mission to collect as many Steele photos as possible and digitally scan them for posterity. If you have a Steel photo you would like to share, I can scan it and promptly return it to you, click the "about us" button for contact information. View my entire collection of Steele photographs  (so far) on the "index of photos" page.


The following are all the articles I could find on Steele in our local papers:

Meade County Globe:

August 16, 1894

F.M Steele, the scenic artist, was in town Wednesday with a number of photographs of the various places and persons in this county. He had two pictures of the recent picnic at the grove, one in their calm and sober moments and the other while at dinner. It makes one laugh and also hungry to see them gloating over fried chicken and ice cream with their mouths awry—being to busy to stop chewing when the “button” was pressed. The work and scenic effect is excellent and all that it lacks of being perfect is that it hasn’t the editor’s propitious phiz to add tone and dignity.

Two pictures Mr. Steele, the photographer, has of Geo. Edwards’ residence also of Mr. Eliasons’, Mr. Brannon’s, and Mr. Steele’s are fine and extremely natural and homelike. He also had a picture of Mr. Bunyan’s residence and the family along with Mr. Sweet’s family and Mrs. Maffitt and some of the neighbors that was taken the day before the recent tragedy at that place. The work is exceptionally good and he is meeting with a large sale. Mr. Steele will be in our city about the last of the moth for cabinet work.

 

August 30, 1894

Mr. Steele, the photographer, was in town Friday and had some printing done to advertise his work. He is doing the whole country and turning out many fine pictures of men, farms and ranches.

 

December 13, 1894

Steele, the artist, will take a spot light photograph of the masquerade ball on Christmas. Everyone that wants to see themselves at their prettiest and that want a picture should be there.

Mr. Steele, the artist, is in town with a smile and a five bushel box of pictures that he has to deliver all over the south and east. It is a general remark by our people, “just see what a pile of pictures, “ and these pictures speak form themselves as to his work, as our people are not slow to recognize a thing of beauty and when they see it they want it and they surely get it from Mr. Steele. The Globe man was looking over some of his work at the Osgood House Monday and he has made fine photographs of at least 50 ranches and farms south of this city in the county and strip. R. K. Perry has several fine views of his pasture and cattle and ranch houses, and his mess wagon all so natural and true to life that it makes one feel that he is right on the spot. Fred Taintor has at least a dozen different pictures of his ranch, one being a panoramic view that is fine in its effects. The photograph of R. K Perry’s cattle in the Cimarron River is artistic in the extreme and shows to a splendid advantage. Henry Brinkman, Claus Berger, Com. Cordes, and other in the south part of the county are among the pictures that we gazed upon with great satisfaction. Were we to say something about all of the photographs we saw it would fill a column or more and it is enough to say that Mr. Steele’s work is all first class and warranted to please and the large  and numerous orders that he receives from the people everywhere is a guarantee that his work pleases and satisfies the artistic taste of our citizens. In another place in this paper Mr. Steele has a word to our readers, see what he says and take advantage of the golden opportunity to get photographs of yourselves and your children.


Ad in the January 10, 1895 issue:

Special Notice to the Lovers of Fine Art

A cordial invitation is extended to every one to call and examine my work, if suited, will do my best to please you. I will guarantee the finest of work in every respect and I will make a specialty on crayon pastels and copying. I will also carry a large line of frames at a reasonable price. Picture frames also made to order. May studio will be open from January 1st, 1895 until March 20th, 1895. Do not delay having your pictures taken. Remember if I do not get you a picture as fine as the best, no charge will be made, this I will back with my work. My studio will be warm the coldest day so you need not fear the cold. Remember that this is the first chance you have ever had of getting work that is satisfactory. You do not pay me one cent until you get your work, all I ask of you is to make a deposit at the bank. I am very thankful to the people of this country for their past favors and will be pleased to have you all call and see me, even if you have no work made. I also guarantee as find work in cloudy weather as clear. Do not put off coming until the last day as I do not want to have to send any work back, so if I deliver your work personally and if you have any kick to make make it to me, not someone else. May studio will be closed on Sunday, unless it is for parties that live a long distance away, as I think everyone should observe the Sabbath. If you wish pictures of your places when the snow is on notify me. I am your obedient servant, F.M. Steele


January 3, 1895

Capt. Steele, the artist, has the old Mosser gallery furnished with exquisite taste and elegance and is prepared to do the finest work ever turned out in southwestern Kansas. Our people should extend to Mr. Steele a liberal patronage in return for his enterprise. He is prepared to do all classes of work and guarantees work that compares with that done in large cities. It will pay you to stop in and see him when in the city, look at his samples and arrange for work.

 


Ad, same issue:

Where to Go

Have you been to see Steele, the artist, in his new and elegantly furnished quarters at the old east side gallery which he has papered and carpeted and fixed up in the latest style with the back rounds, swings, rustic chairs, fences and all the necessary paraphernalia for taking fancy as well as plain pictures. Go and see what fine facilities he has for work and the opportunity that you now have to get first class work. You need not put off any longer getting a photograph of yourself or any member of the family or the usual reason that you cannot get a good picture outside of our large cities, as he has every modern convenience and facility for doing the best work. All his negatives are sent to Kansas City to an expert artist who does the retouching to the most scientific and careful manner and any little defects that may appear are carefully and skillfully remedied. In fact you get only first class work—something that suits and pleases and you will not be ashamed to send to your friends in the east or put in your album at home. Bring in your babies and whole family to have pictures either single or in groups. Nothing is nicer than a good picture of your baby that will show the little tot as he was when young. Where is there a lady who would not be pleased to see a good picture when she was, as Shakespeare says, “ a mawling and pukeing infant.” Such a picture will show how you have changed in looks either for better or worse—or in other words see how much prettier you are now than when you were a “kid.” The gallery is provided with a convenient toilet room so you can arrange your dress and hair and put on these little finishing touches that are so essential in the general make-up. Come in and see styles of pictures and learn prices, decide on what you want, and we will show you a proof of the picture before you leave town.

 

May 1895

F.M. Steele, the artist, and Miss Pink Fletcher, daughter of C.P. Fletcher of Logan township, were married at the home of the bride last Sunday evening by Rev. Votaws. A number of relatives were present to witness the ceremony and bid the happy couple bon voyage. Mr. Steele is an old acquaintance of the bride having been a play mate back in old Missouri some years ago and last summer when he was “viewing” the country with his country he renewed the old friendship that ripened into marriage. Both parties are held in high esteem by our people, the groom is knows as a skillful artist and has done a great deal of work in this community that speaks for his proficiency in his profession, Miss Pink, the bride, is a lovely lady and one who will bless and grace the position of wife. The Globe congratulates Mr. and Mrs. Steele and hopes for them lives of usefulness and power.       

 

 

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