The Early Years: Switzerland to America, 1886-1907

Lake Constance, Switzerland    / Oil on Masonite / 24 x 35 in. / Private Collection

Lake Constance, Switzerland  / Oil on Masonite / 24 x 35 in. / Private Collection

CONRAD BUFF II was born on January 15, 1886 in the Swiss village of Speicher. From his earliest memory, Conrad Buff loved the grand mountains that surrounded his home town. He fondly recalled hearing farmers leading cows with big bells up to the Alps, the church bells ringing, and the local folk songs. Since childhood, Buff spent his spare time sketching. At first he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps by studying embroidery design at the School of Arts and Crafts in St. Gallen. However, once there, an inspirational teacher emphasized freedom and individuality in drawing, causing him to rethink his career path. By his third year, Buff decided that he wanted to become a fine artist and gathered the courage to tell his practically minded mother.

Unfortunately, his mother did not share his dream and promptly told him to leave home. Nearly penniless, Buff went to live with a cousin and made plans to attend the Royal Academy in Munich. While studying in Munich for the Academy’s stringent entrance exams, the little money Buff had saved ran out, forcing him to return home. He had reached a point in his life where he saw little hope for the future and therefore was determined to seek his destiny in the faraway American West.

In 1905, nineteen year old Buff passed through Ellis Island where congenial customs officials put him on the train to Wisconsin. He found work milking cows on a farm with other Swiss workers but left after learning about the terrible wages and working conditions. Soon after, he found a new position in Illinois at a cheese factory. Although he wanted to work, he felt exploited once again and quit. Buff made his way to Cheyenne, Denver, and Billings, Montana, drifting through many jobs from a saloon to an apprenticeship at a map-making company. Unfortunately, he felt slighted by nearly every employer he had come in contact with, which perhaps encouraged his resolve to work for himself later in life.

From Billings, Buff took the train to Seattle, peeling potatoes in exchange for travel. Finding limited opportunity there, he went to San Francisco, despite hearing that a recent earthquake had caused widespread damage to the city. True to the accounts, the city was devastated, and Buff headed south to Los Angeles in 1907.