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The beloved legacy of fruit farmer-turned-artist 'Bud' Kill

GASPORT – Ruthven "Bud" Kill was a small man who spent most of his life growing fruit.

But after his retirement around 1970, he blossomed into a philosopher, painter and poet.

Now, 29 years after his death just days before his 91st birthday, Kill is still remembered and his impact is still felt in the communities where he lived.

In his office in his North Tonawanda factory, Bob Confer of Gasport keeps a Kill painting of his home on Slayton Settlement Road close by, "reminding me of the importance of home," he said.

Jon Davis, a nephew of Kill's wife, has a collection of some 50 letters to the editor his uncle wrote to the Lockport Union-Sun and Journal between 1975 and 1985, on topics as varied as energy policy, Christianity, immigration, human nature and warm memories of farming and maple sugaring. "He was really a curious and a smart man," Davis said.

Ruthven "Bud" Kill, right, stands with his [arents and siblings, from left, F. Dewitt Kill, Frances Silsby Kill, Emily Kill, Leona "Dottie" Kill, Fred Manchester Kill and Alice Kill, around 1915 at the family farm.

And the Rev. Theodore Elsenheimer, a minister in South Carolina, a great-nephew, recalls Kill stopping by to take him out in the car when he was recovering from an injury as a 13-year-old. "His quiet thoughtfulness and willingness to stretch a young mind was profound," said Elsenheimer.

"I knew Bud Kill, everybody knew him," said Alan Buhr, a co-owner of Newroyal Orchards, whose orchards include some acreage once owned and farmed by Kill. Buhr recalled seeing Kill sitting in his car alongside the road, "looking across the fields and writing, or drawing."

Confer, who has two oil paintings of his home done by Kill, revived interest in this fascinating multi-talented man when he posted a photo of one of the paintings of his farmhouse on the "Gasport, New York" Facebook page.

This painting of a church by Ruthven "Bud" Kill is cherished by Kill's wife's nephew, Jon Davis. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

"If you have a Kill original, post a pic here," he wrote, and soon comments were streaming in, along with photos of Kill paintings of churches and mills. Davis contributed shots of his two paintings – one a log church in front of a fanciful snow-capped mountain range, the other a white church with a towering steeple in snow.

Others posted photos of a stone mill and discussed a Kill painting Davis had once seen of the Cobblehurst estate and historic landmark, the old Quaker meeting house on Ridge Road between Quaker and Johnson Creek roads.

Painting and writing became a passion once Kill retired, said Davis, whose father was a brother of Kill's wife Gladys. "He got done with his farming and he just broke loose. He'd probably been thinking about it."

Humble beginnings

Kill was the second-oldest of five children born to Fred Manchester Kill and Frances Silsby Kill on the family homestead on Orangeport Road near Slayton Settlement Road. He was short and slight, with red hair.

In 1986, when he was 88 years old and well-known as a prolific contributor to the Lockport Union-Sun and Journal's letters to the editor column, the newspaper profiled Kill. He reminisced about his childhood days, going with his brother, DeWitt, to "peek through the bushes and watch for barges to come down the Erie Canal," and caring for the family's sheep, hens, cows and horses, and growing sweet corn, tomatoes, strawberries and apples.

In 1932, Kill met his future wife, Gladys Davis, one of 10 children of Joe and Hattie Davis, who lived near Hartland Corners. He thought she was "a pretty, refined girl with nice ways and a generous heart," he wrote many years later. "She was small and I liked her at the start."

He began to call on her and enjoy visiting with her lively family at their Ridge Road farm. "The doors were never locked and no one ever left hungry," he wrote.

But the Great Depression made life difficult for all farmers. Kill wrote later, "If one was a farmer, there were 20 years' losses to make up." Davis said, "She was a schoolteacher in Lockport, and she had her own job, but he believed that it was his responsibility, as a husband and a man, to provide."

Ruthven "Bud" Kill and his wife, the former Gladys Davis, pictured around 1980, loved spending time with their nieces and nephews. (Courtesy of the Davis family)

Kill told the Lockport newspaper reporter, "She was old-fashioned and thought I should have a house before we were married." They courted for 16 years before marrying in 1944.

The house they shared was at 8 Bewley Parkway in Lockport. They lived there for the rest of their lives in harmony, said Davis, who never heard the two speak angrily to each other. "He might make a statement about some subject and Gladys would correct him, then he would admit that she was right and he would laugh. He was always upbeat about everything and everybody."

During his years as a farmer and fruit grower, Kill served as director of the New York State Cherry and Apple Growers, was president of the local Farm Bureau and director of the the Great Lakes Cherry Growers Bargaining Association.

In 1978, he received a distinguished service award from the Niagara County Cooperative Extension Agriculure Program. By that time, he was retired, although he was still going daily in the summers to Orangeport Orchards, which he had co-owned with Willis Molner since the 1960s.

The Union-Sun and Journal article noted, "Since his retirement, Kill has taken up both brush and pen and has created many art works and sensitive pieces of writing about his farm and extensive woodlot." In the 1986 newspaper profile, the reporter described Kill's paintings as "mostly colorful Grandma Moses-type oils of local churches, barns and landscapes."

Blossoming in retirement

Being retired, said Davis, "allowed him to pursue hobbies he had dreamed of undertaking when he had the time. These hobbies were those of a thinking man and included reading, writing and painting."

"You'd go over to their house and he'd have things he was working on, and he'd just show you," said Davis, who recalled Kill painting in his living room, although "a lot of times he worked outside."

Kill was familiar with the houses, farm buildings and landscape of Gasport, Lockport and the Town of Royalton. He particularly liked to paint churches.

"He would see a house or something he wanted to paint," said Davis. "I assume he'd go to the door and tell them what he was going to do out front, and he would paint it, then he would go get it framed and give it to the people."

His works, some oil on canvas and some on paper, were professionally framed in a Lockport frame shop. Some were sold; Confer said his grandmother, who originally lived in the house where he and his family live now, bought the two paintings from Kill.

"I know he liked the house a lot," said Confer, but he wasn't sure why Kill painted it twice, from two different perspectives.

Irene Fadden, granddaughter of Bud Kill's brother DeWitt, remembered her great-uncle fondly.

"He was a very small man," she said. "I remember him driving the car, and I don't know how high he was above the dashboard,  but if you weren't looking, you wouldn't see him. As he got older, his arthritis got bad and he was bent over.

"I remember him in our house, standing right by our coat closet, which was right inside the door, rolling his own cigarettes and talking about what was happening. He was very social, and a very nice person."

Although Fadden doesn't own any of his paintings, she is grateful that Kill not only expressed his creativity but preserved long-gone scenes. "I think it's wonderful, because he had that personal connection with the area," she said.

While the church in this painting, owned by the Davis family,  is not a Niagara County landmark, many of Kill's paintings  preserve images of the Gasport area that are long gone. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

For Fadden's brother, Theodore Elsenheimer, Kill was a mentor and an inspiration, helping pay for his mother's college education.

On March 13, 1967, when Elsenheimer was 13, he was seriously injured when he was struck by a car at the corner of Slayton Settlement and Orangeport roads. "My recovery was very slow and when I left the hospital unable to walk without crutches, my uncle would show up at our house and ask if I would like to spend some time in the wetlands or orchards with him," he said.

"He would drive us back into the farm and at some point stop and take out a thermos of tea and two cups, sometimes two pencils and notebooks, and he would read me a poem or tell me the history of the area for I actually don’t know how long. Sometimes we would write together after we were done. Sometimes we drew stills of what we saw. As I healed, we went for long quiet walks, whereupon he might talk about the value of wetlands, a creek, progress and history."

Later, Kill taught his great-nephew how to prune fruit trees, and how to graft suckers into the root system in the early spring after mice had damaged a tree.

Elsenheimer recalled happy visits to the Bewley Parkway home, when the Kills would talk about the old history of Orangeport, Gasport, Lockport, the building of the Erie Canal by immigrants,  and "Christian faith and its short and long suits."

Kill addressed many of these topics in his letters to the editor. He also copied and had spiral-bound a 26-page booklet of his poetry, much of it nature-inspired, titled "Philosophical Selections." He also collected his letters to the editor into a bound booklet.

In 1978, in a letter that seems autobiographical, he wrote, "Life is still exciting to him and his wife and only when their time comes will their tools be set aside."

Gladys died on July 20, 1984, and although Kill continued writing letters to the editor into 1985, Davis said he stopped after the newspaper published a letter from another contributor complaining about Kill's frequent and lengthy letters.

"Even though others wrote in that they enjoyed Ruthven's writing, the thought that anyone would be displeased with him stopped his newspaper submissions," said Davis. "Being the quiet and thoughtful man he was, he in no way wanted to offend or antagonize anyone with his submissions."

On Oct. 7, 1984, Kill wrote a letter to Davis's recently widowed mother in which he waxed philosophical about the challenges of aging and recalled some good times. "Those few times that you drove around, picked Gladys and I up, and took us to dinner are remembered with fondness," he wrote. "We were slowed down with old age infirmities, but today we would be so thankful if we were all here, even slowed by old age.

"I wish I had a panacea for aging people. We are all in this together. It is hard, when everything seems unfavorable, to realize that once we were on the other side of life, those were times of indescribable joy ... They compensated for some of the rough times that there's no way of detouring. We are left with a wealth of memories that should help to sustain us over illness and sorrow."

Ruthven "Bud" Kill died on Jan. 12, 1989, eight days short of his 91st birthday, and is buried in Hartland Cemetery next to Gladys.

But his memory survives in the words he wrote and the scenes he painted.

For Confer, the paintings sparked a discussion on Facebook, a social media platform Kill could never have imagined, but which brought together many people who remember him fondly.

In 1999, Confer bought the house his grandmother had lived in since 1955. He had lived in the home until age 3, when he and his parents moved into a log house they built nearby.

"The paintings carry some special emotional weight for me as they bring back a lot of memories," he said. "It’s rare that we sit back with a camera and just take a picture of our homes. But these paintings did just that, capturing the whole image of the homestead in its own creative way at a moment in time."

Although the house itself hasn't changed much, Confer said, its surroundings are very different. The family stopped farming decades ago, so many barns and outbuildings, some built as long ago as 1852, were removed. The last one came down in 1996.

But in the paintings, the old red buildings still surround the yellow farmhouse with its turret, bay window and porches. "The paintings take me back in time, allowing me to remember and reflect on those barns that were such great playgrounds and things of wonderment during my childhood," he said.



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