John Gault Maxwell was born in Scotland in 1825. He came to America, arriving in New York and by 1859 at the age of thirty-four Maxwell had made his way to Kansas, and was immediately smitten with the Kansas prairies and with the immense herds of buffalo that still roamed them at that time. Whether because of the civil war or because of Indian troubles on the plains, records show Maxwell returned to New York for a time, where he married. Passage of various Homestead Acts brought him back to his beloved Kansas prairies in 1866 to settle near the present town of Marquette, where two sons, John and Henry were born, possible some of the first white children to be born in McPherson County.
John Gault Maxwell became a farmer and businessman, but never lost his love of the Kansas prairie, and desired to preserve a piece of that prairie, complete with free-roaming buffalo, so future generations could experience the Kansas plains as he had first seen them. As a businessman, Maxwell served as Justice of the Peace for McPherson County, and started the very successful JG Maxwell Grain Co. in or near the present town of McPherson. After his death in 1877, sons John and Henry continued to successfully operate the business. When son John died, his business interests went to Henry, and upon Henry’s death in 1940, $75,000 was set aside with explicate instructions to purchase three to six sections of Kansas prairie land to be placed in the care of the state, and devoted to educating people everywhere about the Kansas prairies, keeping their father’s dream alive.
In 1944, four sections, 2560 acres of rolling prairie land, comprised of tall, open, rolling bluffs, deep wooded creek bottoms and riddled with deposits of Dakota Sandstone were purchased in Battleship Township of northeastern McPherson County and were deeded to the then Kansas Fish and Game Commission. It took most of seven years to get the land fenced and ready to receive and hold stock, and in 1951 Maxwell Wildlife Refuge officially opened with a small herd of ten buffalo and six elk. One-half section of the refuge was set aside for a lake, and McPherson State Fishing Lake opened in 1956.
The refuge remained fairly obscure until 1993, when a non-profit, all-volunteer organization calling themselves “Friends of Maxwell” came to be. Established to educate the public about the prairie, animals and people of this part of Kansas, the group offers year-round tours where participants are actually taken out among the bison herd, and oversees annual events like the fall Mountain Man Rendezvous, trail rides and both a spring & fall wildflower tour. All funds collected go back into supporting those events & tours and the tourist center.
Over the years additional land was purchased, and today Maxwell Wildlife Refuge contains 2800 acres and sports a herd of 200 buffalo and 85 elk. In 2015, the refuge entertained visitors from 42 states and 22 foreign countries. I think it’s safe to say that John Gault Maxwell’s dream remains alive and well, and that Maxwell Wildlife Refuge has become a gleaming jewel in the Kansas crown.
Steve can be contacted by email at [email protected]