More than a century ago, a Bethel farm girl who rarely traveled more than a few miles from her home acquired a camera, found her artistic calling and created an exceptional body of work.

Her photography survives today as a testament to her creativity and talent and as an invaluable historic record of her life and times in rural Maine.

Nettie Cummings Maxim was born, raised and lived out her life on a farm on Bird Hill, a mile or so outside the village of Locke Mills. Married at 17, she remained on the family farm with her husband and had three children by the time she was 21.

Like all farm wives of her time, her life revolved around child care, preserving the farm’s bounty, sewing her family’s clothing, cooking for them and for the many hired hands and doing countless other chores. She died tragically young, at 33, in the same farmhouse in which she was born.

It could have been an unremarkable life. Except for her children and their descendants, there might have been little left behind to show that Nettie Maxim ever existed, had it not been for her discovery, early in life, of the passion that resulted in an enduring legacy.

In 1895, while still in her teens, she acquired her first camera, and for the next 15 years, she managed to carve time out of her busy schedule to create thousands of images depicting rural and small-town life at the turn of the 20th century.

More than a casual hobby

Within a few years, Nettie graduated from her 1½- by 2-inch format starter camera to more advanced photographic equipment. By 1900, she owned both 4- by 5-inch and 5- by 7-inch format cameras.

The latter is now on display at the Greenwood Historical Society as part of an exhibit of her photography. That camera, a Telephoto Cycle Poco C, was manufactured in New York by Rochester Camera in the 1890s. It would have cost about $25 in Nettie’s day, the equivalent of about $700 today.

The versatility of her new cameras, which could accept multiple lenses and focus on a greater depth of field, vastly improved her results. But because exposure times were long, the real secret to Nettie’s success was her innate artistic eye, which allowed her to pose her subjects so that they appeared to have been captured while in motion.

“Little wonder that she was able to sell some of her photographs for postcards and thus can be considered at least a semi-professional photographer,” wrote Diane and Jack Barnes in “Maine Life at the Turn of the Century: Through the Photographs of Nettie Cummings Maxim.”

The book, part of the “Images of America” series from Arcadia Publishing, was released in 1995 and is still in print. It focuses on Nettie’s life and work and includes many images from the Greenwood Historical Society’s collection.

Nettie apparently never owned an enlarger, but with her new cameras, she was able to produce high-quality, larger prints. Her “darkroom” consisted of a closet in the farmhouse, where she worked by the light of a red-shaded kerosene lamp, opening the door for a few seconds to let the sunlight expose her glass negatives.

With the exception of some portraits taken using trays of flash powder, nearly all of her photographs were taken outdoors. Nettie would often tack a hand-painted canvas backdrop to the side of the family’s barn and pose her subjects in front of it.

A wide array of subjects

Her three children, Earle, Winnie and Walter, appear in many of Nettie’s photographs, as do other family members and members of the 10 or so neighboring families on Bird Hill. She often planned her photos well in advance, selected special outfits for her subjects and posed them precisely.

Farm work and summer outings were among her favorite events to photograph, but her work also provides a detailed historical record of the buildings on Bird Hill and in the village of Locke Mills during the early 20th century.

Her photographs of the Locke Mills Union Church, the Mt. Abram Hotel, the train station and other buildings will form a valuable part of Greenwood’s bicentennial celebration in 2016, appearing on T-shirts and other items for sale, as well as on display at the Greenwood Historical Society.

Nettie also took highly artistic photographs of native wildflowers, apple trees in blossom and garden blooms.

And she was well ahead of her time in at least one more way: She loved to capture amusing images of the farm’s many cats and kittens. Her collection includes a photo of a calico kitten in a man’s bowler hat and another of three kittens in a berry basket.

A creative life cut short

Nettie was born relatively late in life to Moses Cummings, whose first wife had died while he was away serving in the Civil War, and Juliette Barker Cummings. Moses had two older children who were raised by relatives when he was widowed.

Her parents had been married for 10 years before Nettie arrived, and, according to the Barnes’ narrative, Juliette hoped her only child would remain a spinster and care for them in their old age.

Instead, as a teenager, she fell in love with and married Howard Maxim, a carpenter from Paris Hill hired by her father to enlarge the family home.

The young couple shared the farmhouse with Nettie’s parents throughout their life together, but Juliette continue to resent her son-in-law and the marriage.

In the spring of 1910, one of the farmhands who boarded at the Maxim farm returned from a trip to Berlin, N.H., and was stricken with diphtheria. He eventually recovered, but Nettie, who had nursed him through his illness, contracted the disease herself and succumbed to it in late May.

Preserving the past

Given the events of the ensuing decades, during which Howard remarried, lost the farm to foreclosure and moved to Locke Mills, it seems miraculous that so many of Nettie’s glass-plate negatives survived unharmed.

Her oldest child, Earle, died overseas in World War I, but Winnie and Walter both married and remained in the area.

Nearly 70 years after their mother’s death, when the Greenwood Historical Society was being organized in 1979, its president, Blaine Mills, asked the siblings about her collection of glass-plate negatives.

He learned that although some had been broken over the years, they each had several boxes of them stored at their homes.

“Walter had them stashed in a woodshed and Winnie had hers stashed in a barn,” Mills said.

The siblings had been planning to send them to Walter’s daughter, Marilyn Maxim Wilson, who lives in Texas.

Mills, believing the images had great significance to the town of Greenwood, and fearing that the delicate glass plates would be lost or destroyed, asked if the newly formed Historical Society might be allowed to care for the ones most relevant to local history.

In the end, Walter and Winnie decided they wanted the collection to remain intact, and donated all of them to the society.

Mills spent two years cleaning and separating the glass negatives, placing each in a separate acid-free envelope and creating an index.

“It just about gave me fits,” he said, “because Winnie and Walter kept calling to say they’d found another box of them after I’d already gotten halfway through the indexing project.”

Using an antique enlarger and the Historical Society darkroom, he has been able to use the glass plates to make high-quality prints for display, and to sell to raise funds for the society.

In 1995, Nettie’s granddaughter in Texas loaned her camera for a celebration of the publication of the Barnes’ book, and she recently donated it permanently to the society.

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