Sir Hubert Wilkins Anzac Hero to Amish Barn

The Lost Records of Sir Hubert Wilkins:

I have been to some unusual places in my ongoing search to locate and preserve the lost records of the Australian pioneer aviator, Anzac photographer and polar explorer, Sir Hubert Wilkins. Perhaps no more unusual place than an Amish barn in the US state of Michigan. I am sometimes asked how this came about, so I will explain in this article.

First a little background. At the time of his death, the enormous collection of photographs, films, correspondence, artefacts, journals and items that Sir Hubert Wilkins had collected from a lifetime of travelling, exploring and meeting people, was stored at his farm in Montrose, Pennsylvania. Sir Hubert had bought the farm after abandoning hopes of returning to Australia, and therefore deciding to live permanently in America. After his death in 1958, some of his collection was purposely destroyed, while other parts of it were sold, given away or discarded because it had, and some of it remained it the farm. (The story of what happened to Sir Hubert Wilkins’s collection is the subject of an article in itself.)

The Sir Hubert Wilkins Memorial Foundation

In 1998, Sir Hubert’s former personal secretary Winston Ross, died. Winston Ross had inherited Wilkins’s farm and its contents. At the time, a large amount of Wilkins material still remained there. Certainly, enough to fill a small room. The remaining material was still stored in the same cardboard boxes in which it had been when Sir Hubert Wilkins died. That meant that it was stored haphazardly, without any system, or markings on any box. After the death of Winston Ross, his adopted son, Michael (Mike) Ross had expected to inherit the farm, but as a result of further family disputes, he did not. Mike wanted to continue the work of the Wilkins Memorial Foundation started by Winston Ross (which included preserving Sir Hubert’s records, as well as promoting his memory and legacy) and he was concerned the remaining material would also be either sold or destroyed. So in 1999, Mike Ross drove from his home in Michigan, to Montrose, Pennsylvania, and loaded his car with whatever boxes he could carry. Then he took them back to his home.

Sir Hubert Wilkins pioneer aviator and World War I Anzac photographer
Sir Hubert Wilkins. Australian polar explorer, pioneer aviator and World War I Anzac photographer

I had tracked down Mike Ross through my research and first met him in Chicago, shortly after he had taken the material from the farmhouse. Because of flight schedules, we were only able to meet briefly, but it was clear that Mike was passionate about preserving Sir Hubert Wilkins’s material, and wanted it to go to an appropriate museum or archive. He was also upset about the court cases and disputes that had resulted in so much of the other material being destroyed, discarded, sold, or given away. He was rightfully suspicious of this person who had come from Australia to research Sir Hubert Wilkins, and I understood that I would need to earn his trust and convince him that my intentions did not include getting the material to sell it for personal profit.

During our meeting, which only lasted about an hour, it was also evident that Mike Ross had a strong desire to travel to Australia so that he could visit Wilkins’s birthplace and homestead at Mount Bryan East, South Australia.

At the end of the hour, we shook hands and caught our separate flights and promised to stay in touch. This we did over the next fifteen years. I would regularly update him on my research and work and he, in turn, was more forthcoming about the disputes and personal issues that had caused the arguments and legal battles over the Wilkins material. I also learned that his health was deteriorating. In mid 2014, he told me that if I wanted to come to Michigan, he would allow me to go through the material, and we could discuss what should be done with it. Other projects meant that it was October before I could make the trip.

I landed at Grand Rapids airport, and was met by Mike, who I remembered as a giant bear of a man. He walked me through the carpark to a pickup truck the size of a backyard swimming pool, then drove me an hour north to just outside the small town of Fremont. The Gerber Products Company has its headquarters there and, as Mike explained, Fremont is the ‘Baby Food Capital of the World’.

Mike lived on a small farm outside of Fremont, but we did not drive straight to his property. The boxes I had come to see were in a neighbour’s barn, he explained, and turned the truck down a narrow road where the uncut grass was a metre high on both sides. Then he told me his neighbours were Amish. I’d put my luggage in the back of his truck, but kept (as is my habit) my 35 mm camera slung over my shoulder. Noticing this, Mike explained that while the Amish people did not outright object to people taking their picture, they preferred not to be thought of as tourist attractions. I said that when we arrived, out of courtesy, I would leave the camera in the truck.

Jeff Maynard and Mike Ross in the workshop where Mike made his high precision rifles
Jeff Maynard (right) and Mike Ross in the workshop where Mike made his high precision rifles.

Then I asked the obvious question. Mike was not Amish himself, so how did the Sir Hubert Wilkins’s records and artefacts come to be stored at their place? Mike explained.

Mike was a gunsmith. (This I already knew from our years of correspondence.) He made precision rifles for target shooting. He was, in his younger days, a target shooter himself and had represented the United States in international competitions. He was also a former Master Sergeant in the US Air Force. As a gunsmith, he was licensed to make and repair guns.

Mike had bought the property where he lived and moved there in the 1970s. His property (although I never learned the exact size) was about ten acres. Shortly after moving in, there was a knock on his door and Mike met three Amish men, each carrying a rifle, asking if they could hunt on his property. Apparently, with the previous owner’s consent, they had hunted deer and wild turkey on the property. (The Amish people hunt and prepare their food without any electricity or modern conveniences.) Mike had told them they were welcome to continue to hunt on his property.

Then he looked at their rifles. They were old and second hand. Because the Amish do not have personal identification, such as drivers’ licences (they don’t drive cars), they are unable to purchase new firearms in the State of Michigan. But under US law (which few people outside of America comprehend), they can purchase second-hand guns by paying for them with cash. Once they have the second-hand guns, they keep using them for as long as possible.

Mike Ross explained to the men standing on his front porch, that he was a gunsmith and, if they wanted, he would take a look at their rifles, to make sure they were safe. They agreed, and Mike ended up repairing the bolt action on one of the rifles. (‘Could have blown the guy’s hand off,’ Mike told me.) After this, Mike told the men that if they wanted to tell the others in their community to come over with their guns, he would inspect them all and repair any faults. The men said they would.

‘I got up the next morning and walked out onto my front porch,’ Mike explained. ‘There were about twenty Amish guys standing in front of my house. They were all holding rifles. One young kid had a muzzle loading thing that should have been in a museum.’

From that point on, Mike got to know his neighbours. He would repair their guns for them and they hunted on his property. They began doing other jobs for him and he would pay them cash. At other times he would purchase things for them which involved using faxes or telephones, which the Amish would not use. ‘They are a beautiful gentle people,’ he told me. ‘Everyone around here leaves them alone.’

Mike continued to be involved with his neighbours, even being invited to attend Amish weddings. ‘Unfortunately, one of the biggest threats to their existence is birth defects. They only marry within their community, so they face a diminishing gene pool.’

In 1999, when he had brought Sir Hubert Wilkins’ boxes back from Pennsylvania, Mike had temporarily put them in a neighbour’s barn because of a shortage of space, and simply never got around to moving them.

I’d learned all this by the time Mike slowed the pickup truck and I got out to open the gate leading about 100 metres to a barn in the middle of a field. I waved to a couple of people standing nearby, but otherwise we pulled up, went inside and loaded the boxes (fifteen of them) in the back, next to my luggage. Another wave and we drove to Mike’s place.

Sir Hubert Wilkins Legacy

Behind his house he had a large metal shed with benches and lathes and a variety of other equipment to manufacture rifles. We stacked the boxes on the floor, Mike took me to the motel where I was staying, and for the next week he would pick me up each morning, drive me to the workshop, and I went systematically through the material, spreading it out on the linoleum-topped workbenches. Because I only had a week and realised that was not enough time, I also took boxes to my motel and worked through them there until 2.00 or 3.00 a.m. (Not a difficult thing with jet lag.)

Jeff Maynard starting to sort through the boxes of Sir Hubert Wilkins material
Jeff Maynard starting to sort through the boxes of Sir Hubert Wilkins’s material on the floor of Mike Ross’s workshop

I sorted through and copied photographs and correspondence. I found things that Sir Hubert Wilkins had kept from his time at the Western Front in World War I, as Australia’s official Anzac photographer. There was a beautiful portrait of Wilkins (before he was knighted) drawn by Australian war artist George Lambert, drawn when the two men were at Gallipoli. I found items Sir Hubert had carried on his submarine in 1931, when he had attempted to reach the North Pole by going under the Arctic ice. There was a box of drafts of Sir Hubert’s unpublished autobiographies. There were hundreds of telegrams and radiograms. And unusual or quirky items. After he had searched for lost Russian aviators in the Arctic in 1938, Sir Hubert had gone to Moscow to be personally thanked by Stalin. On a photograph of himself, Stalin had scrawled, ‘to a great Britisher’ and given it to Sir Hubert. I found the photograph lying in the bottom of a box. There were notebooks, passports, and old glass film plates. There were cameras, certificates and material that kept me busy.

At the end of the week, my flight was booked to fly back to Australia. Mike and I had discussed what items should be returned to Australia and what should be donated to the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center at the Ohio State University, where the bulk of Sir Hubert Wilkins material is preserved in the archive and available to researchers.

On the final day of my visit, Mike picked me up from my motel, and was driving me back to Grand Rapids. I had waited years to be able to access the material he held. In the past week I had filled my head with details, taken many notes and copied thousands of documents. But one thing still struck me as unusual. It was exactly 100 years since the first Anzac convoy departed for the war in Europe. And I had discovered unique, and previously unseen, Anzac records in a barn in Michigan, and was now bringing some of them home to Australia.

I explained this to Mike. (We had discussed the Anzac story many times over the previous week.) I explained that I understood the Amish were sensitive about having their photograph taken, but I would like to at least have a photograph of the barn where I had found the material. I still had a few hours until my flight, so we made a quick detour, I got out and Mike took photograph of me standing at the edge of the road, with the barn behind me, in the distance. Then we got back in his truck and continued to the airport.

Jeff Maynard in front of the Amish barn in Michigan where records of Sir Hubert Wilkins had been stored
Jeff Maynard in front of the Amish barn in Michigan where records of Sir Hubert Wilkins had been stored

And that’s how unique records of an Australian pioneer aviator, war photographer and polar explorer, came to be stored in an Amish barn in Michigan.

The limited edition collectible book, The Illustrated Sir Hubert Wilkins, with a Foreword by Dick Smith AC is available at

Proceeds from the sale of the book are used to locate and preserve more of the lost records of Sir Hubert Wilkins.

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