McElfresh Maps the Civil War in Watercolor
by ECW Correspondent Amelia Kibbe
Along the east side of North Union Street, one of the busiest streets in the small city of Olean, New York, in the back part of the first floor of an old, six-story building sits the office of the McElfresh Map Company.
Inside the office, among plenty of book, papers, soldier figurines and posters, sits Earl McElfresh, a cartographer, author and historian, who runs the two-person company with his wife, Michiko. As he begins to talk, the excitement and passion he has for his business shines in the face of the man in his mid-sixties.
Today, the McElfresh Map Company is known for its widely popular Civil War maps and its recent Pearl Harbor Map, which will be displayed by the United States Navy Museum this year.
But things didn’t begin quite so smoothly.
A few decades ago, Earl McElfresh worked for an insurance company, which had been in his family since 1918.
“My dad had taken it over and ran it very successfully . . . and then I took it over and ran it very unsuccessfully,” he said, explaining that the line of product the company had sold faded away over time.
So, McElfresh jumped on the opportunity to create a new business with his wife. Both Olean natives, they had returned to Cattaraugus County after spending some years working in New York City.
“My wife asked me what I wanted to do, and I said, ‘Well, I really like the Civil War.’”
In his reading about the war, he said he’d always been frustrated by the maps—either inaccurate or incomplete—so he decided to solve the problem himself, with Michiko to run the business aspect.
He picked a battle for his first map—not Antietam, Gettysburg or Vicksburg, but rather little-known Prairie Grove, an 1862 Union victory in Arkansas.
“I did this map—watercolor and everything,” he said, saying he began work in 1992. “And I thought it was the most wonderful thing in the world.”
After having colored copies made, he sent them to publishers and other groups he thought might be interested in war maps.
One day, he got a letter in the mail. A woman who owned a publishing company in Virginia had received one of his original maps.
“She said, ‘This map is ridiculous,’” he said.
The woman then pointed out nearly twenty problems she had with his work.
“I was really mad, and my wife said, ‘Well, I don’t want to say anything, but she’s right.’”
So he took the woman’s suggestions and made another map. Deciding it was a definite improvement, he had postcards made of the map, and he and Michiko sent out nearly 1,000 to everyone they could think of.
“We figured if we got 300 orders for this map, we could continue the business,” he said.
Instead, they got three—one from a friend of McElfresh.
However, one was from the chief historian at the National Park Service—Ed Bearss—and the final one from the Harvard Map Collection.
Because of this, McElfresh decided to go ahead and do another map—this time of Antietam.
After selling some of those, he and his wife decided to tackle a map of Gettysburg. As a member of History Book Club, McElfresh reached out to see if the group would be interested in the map. An organizer said the club would order 2,000 copies to accompany a book about the battle.
When he ordered a copy of the book in 1994, the company had attached a postcard.
“It said, ‘We’ve sold out of these,’” he said, referring to the maps he made. “If you want [a map] you can get it from McElfresh Map Company directly.”
That’s when, McElfresh said, he knew he’d made the right choice in starting a business. After that, he didn’t have to plead for orders—requests starting pouring in for his historical base maps.
“There’s nothing military about our maps,” he said. “There’s no military movements; there’s no troop movements . . . they just show, as the soldiers arrived on the field, what they were seeing, in terms of crops, what fences there were, what the lay of the land was.”
The approximately six-month map-making process begins with research, he said. Lots of it.
Using United States geodetic survey maps, field surveys and studies, burial details, unit history position maps and several other sources, McElfresh begins to form an image.
“Once you have a framework, a skeleton in place . . . once you have the unchangeable features, then it’s almost like any other kind of painting—you fill in the in-between places. You figure out where things are,” he said.
McElfresh said when it comes to the actual art of the watercolor map, he draws an outline in pencil and creates a grid—drawing property lines and fence lines, for example—and then paints the images.
Or, for more intricate maps or the times he gets stuck, he uses a pin-prick method, where he takes an existing map, lays it over a piece of watercolor paper, taping them together, and places pins to form an outline.
In 1999, he put together a collection of Civil War-era maps and authored a book, Maps and Mapmakers of the Civil War.
After the publication of his book, McElfresh told his agent he had seen authors of books on C-SPAN and asked if that would be a possibility for him. She told him to be realistic.
“So I called them myself,” he said.
He told C-SPAN the dates and locations of his planned book talks. No television trucks showed up to the first few speeches, but at a book store in Long Island, he arrived to see a large sound truck outside the building.
“The place was packed,” he said. “Everyone there but me knew C-SPAN was coming. It was a really nice talk.”
One night, after he had gone to bed, one of his three children woke him because C-SPAN was airing his talk for the first time.
Today, McElfresh has made nearly 30 maps—about 20 for the History Book Club and 10 others for separate projects. He said his most successful projects include widely used maps of the battle of Gettysburg—which was recognized by the former chief historian of the National Park Service and Gettysburg National Military Park, Harry Pfanz—and non-Civil War battles like Little Big Horn. Generally, individual maps cost between $10 and $20 to purchase, he said.
And although some of the book clubs, McElfresh’s largest customers, have ceased to exist, McElfresh Map Company remains strong, he said.
About 15 years ago, he spent months creating a map for the History Book Club of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Recently, The National Museum of the United States Navy contacted him and asked to use the map as part of their official exhibition celebrating the 75th anniversary earlier this month.
Additionally, he’s working on a project for historian Stephen Sears, making 14 maps for a work scheduled to be published in April.
“Every map is fun,” he said. “Every map that we’ve started is just an amazing treat.”
To see McElfresh’s work, check out the website for the McElfresh Map Company.
3 Responses to McElfresh Maps the Civil War in Watercolor
Can he come to the Symposium with his maps/books?