Charles Buxton-Federated Insurance Wildlife Art Collection Finds new Home at Gainey Center

An unusual and extensive collection of duck stamps and other wildlife art that was assembled over the years by the late Charles Buxton II, former head of Owatonna-based Federated Insurance Cos., recently was donated to the University of St. Thomas.

Charles Buxton II

Charles Buxton II

The 127-piece framed print collection, each signed by the artist, was donated to the university by the Federated Insurance Cos. and by Charles Buxton’s widow, Norma Buxton of Owatonna.

The artwork, some of it dating to the 1940s, is valued at $70,000 and includes many of the early Federal Duck Stamp prints as well as a complete “first-of-state” duck stamp and print collection. The latter are the first duck stamps and prints issued by each state that has adopted a duck-stamp program for waterfowl hunting and habitat preservation.

St. Thomas is in the process of raising funds for a state wildlife art museum or gallery that it hopes to open on the grounds of its Daniel C. Gainey Conference Center located on the southern outskirts of Owatonna.

“What the museum or gallery will look like, and when it will open, depends on our success with raising funds,” explained Gainey Center director Marlene Levine. “This collection from Federated and Mrs. Buxton will be a wonderful addition to the wildlife art we hope to display at the Gainey Center. It recognizes Owatonna’s many connections to our nation’s rich legacy of wildlife art.”

Two years ago, a celebration noting the 75th anniversary of the Federal Duck Stamp program was held at the Gainey Center, which is named after the longtime Jostens executive who bequeathed his Owatonna horse ranch to St. Thomas. The university established a campus and conference center on the grounds in 1982.

Many commercial artists at Jostens, formerly based in Owatonna, drew and painted game birds. With assistance from entrepreneurs like William Webster, founder and former owner of Wild Wings Gallery in Lake City, the artists began to sell limited edition prints and other facsimiles of their paintings.

“There might not be a more fitting place for a state wildlife art museum,” said Webster, a 1950 St. Thomas alumnus, “than the Gainey Center and its 180 acres along the Straight River, which provides a natural habitat for deer, ducks, geese, pheasants, turkeys and a wide variety of song birds.”

This 1982 Federal Duck Stamp, part of the collection donated to St. Thomas, was painted by David Maass, a former art director at Jostens. This stamp was selected from more than 2,000 entries for that year's stamp contest.

This 1982 Federal Duck Stamp, part of the collection donated to St. Thomas, was painted by David Maass, a former art director at Jostens. This stamp was selected from more than 2,000 entries for that year's stamp contest.

Fifteen Minnesota artists have won 23 Federal Duck Stamp contests in its 77-year history. The next closest state, Iowa, has had five contest winners. “Minnesota is looked on as the state with the most recognized wildlife artists because of celebrated painters like F. L. Jaques, David Maass, Les Kouba, Jim Killen, Stu Ferreira, Ron Van Gilder, the three Hautman brothers, Joe, Jim and Bob, and a significant number of others,” Webster said.

All those artists are represented in the Buxton collection.

“My husband, Charles, died 10 years ago this summer,” Norma Buxton said. “When we heard a couple of years ago that St. Thomas had hopes of opening a state wildlife art gallery or museum at the Gainey farm, we talked it over as a family and decided that this would be a wonderful and safe place for people to enjoy the wildlife stamps and art my husband had collected over the years.

“We think it’s a fabulous idea because of the Owatonna and Jostens connections to wildlife art.  When our children were little, my husband and I would go to the Gainey farm and watch the horses and visit with Dan Gainey. He would tell us all about the Arabian horses.

“My husband first began collecting stamps as a child, and he also was a duck hunter.  It was a natural thing for him to collect the duck stamps. He certainly had an enthusiasm for them, and became enamored with collecting all the first duck stamps and prints issued by states.

“In addition to Dan Gainey of Jostens, Charles also got to know some of the artists, like Jim Killen, Dave Maass and Stewart Ferreira, who each served as art director of Jostens, and of course William Webster from Wild Wings who helped my husband assemble the collection,” she said.

Webster said the Buxton collection is unusual because most stamp collectors didn’t try to assemble complete “first-of-state” sets of stamps and prints. He said it is difficult to know how many complete sets are in existence, but it wouldn’t be a large number. The state stamps evolved from the Federal Duck Stamp Program, which began in 1934. Webster said only about 50 complete sets of the federal stamps and prints are known to exist. While the Buxton collection includes many of the early federal stamps and prints, it is not a complete set.

Charles Buxton II, the great-grandson of the founder of Federated Insurance, had a 50-year career there and was chairman emeritus of the board when he died in August 2000.  Under his leadership, Federated made substantial operational gains and progress.

Steve Erdman is the office services manager at Federated and assisted Buxton with the art collection. “Much of it was displayed in a hallway and large meeting room at the company,” he said, “but it was taken down during an extensive remodeling project there in the late 199os.” 

The art was carefully cataloged, wrapped and stored until recently when it was transferred to the Gainey Center.

“No new pieces have been added to the collection since 2000, when Mr. Buxton died,” Erdman said, “but he did manage to collect all the first-of-state stamps and prints, and about half of the federal stamps and prints. I think people will enjoy seeing the collection once again.”