On today’s episode of Photographs, Pistols & Parasols we continue with the update to Episode 7: A Tale of Two Townes. In this episode, we get a special bonus update that solves the mystery of George Ober, the first husband of the early photographer Clara Ober-Towne. I’m excited to feature my interview John Felix, an independent photo historian from Massachusetts.
Support for this project is provided by listeners like you. Check out my website at p3photographers “dot” net for ideas on how you, too, can become a supporter of the project.
Welcome to Photographs, Pistols & Parasols, the podcast where we celebrate early women artisan photographers.
I’m your host, Lee McIntyre.
On today’s episode, I’m going to bring you the promised bonus update about Clara and Willis Towne with information from my special guest, John Felix, an independent photo historian from Massachusetts. I’ll also be giving you a preview of some of the women who will appearing on the podcast later this season.
For more information about any of the women discussed in today’s episode, visit my website at p3photographers.net. That’s letter “p”, number “3”, photographers dot net.
Last time I brought you some updates about Season One episodes including an update about Clara Ober-Towne that followed up on my Episode 7, “A Tale of Two Townes”. [NB the audio incorrectly says Episode 9].
But the biggest update for “A Tale of Two Townes” comes from a man named John Felix, who’s an independent photo historian himself.
As it turns out, John contacted me after hearing the podcast episode, because he’s actually been working on a forthcoming article about the Townes, and he takes a more in-depth look at all of their lives and careers.
I’m really looking forward to this article!
John has generously offered to share the answer to one of the puzzles that I raised in the podcast.
Now, remember that Clara Towne was actually Clara Ober-Towne. She’d been married to a man named George Ober before she married Willis [Towne].
I had pondered in the podcast, “Whatever happened to George Ober?,” because I had lost track of him. I couldn’t find any trace of him after he and Clara got married in the 1880s.
Thanks to John, though, we have some answers.
What follows is [a portion of] the conversation I had with John over the phone a couple of weeks ago.
LM: John, if we could just start by just having you introduce yourself.
JF: Sure. My name is John Felix, and I’ve been interested in photography and the history of photography for some time. I’ve collected daguerrotypes for many years, and also cabinet cards made by Boston photographers. That’s what got me into my interest in Clara Ober.
John has traced the full story of George Ober’s life starting with his birth in the mid 1800s, and there’s evidence that he was a farmer in the eighteen seventies. But I want to move forward into the story today to get just before George and Clara get together in the late 1870s.
JF: The next time he shows up is in 1879 city directory of Nashua, NH. He’s living with his brother, who is 3 years older than him.
JF: His brother is a milk dealer, and George is listed as being a milk driver, dealing in milk, either in bulk, or something. I’m not sure how long he is doing that, but by the next year, by 1880, he’s listed in the federal census as being a real estate and stock broker. That year is also kind of significant, as that is the year he married Clara Ober, on September 30, 1880. What’s kind of interesting about that, at the time they got married, he was living in NH, she was living in Vermont, but they got married in Boston. But you know they didn’t live in Boston.
JF: For the next two years, as least the Nashua city directoy shows that they were living in NH.
LM: Oh, OK.
JF: He’s living at an address, 2 East Olive Street. Just make a mental note of that address, because we’ll talk about that a little later in the conversation. So that happens in 1881 and 1882, they are living in Nashua. But in 1882, a couple of of things happen. First of all, he gets in trouble with the law a bit.
JF: In July of 1882 a grand jury hears testimony from the Massachusetts attorney general that says our friend George, here, has counterfit stocks …
JF: … from the Copper Harbor Copper Company. Copper Harbor was an area of Michigan that was very rich in copper deposits. He [George] has some forged documents in his possession…
JF: … and they said he had them with the intention of defrauding the company. But he got caught, and he ended up pleading guilty to forgering charges in November 1882.
LM: Oh, OK, wow!
JF: Now, I really couldn’t find any record for what happened for the next couple of years, any direct information, but what I did find is that just about that time he was having some problems with his marriage with Clara. She ended up filing for divorce in 1889.
Now, in those divorce records what we find is that she claims that they lived as husband and wife in Boston from July 1882 – January 1, 1883, and then: [here JF quotes from Clara’s divorce papers], “I continued living in Boston until the present in 1889.”
What she doesn’t say directly, but what she’s kind of saying, is that he wasn’t there. And what she does say also is that he “utterly deserted her in 1886.” So, it was 3 years, and that’s kind of important, I think, for desertion. I’m not positive about this, but it has to be a certain amount of time. So here it is in 1889, and she was saying that he deserted her in 1886.
JF: Whether or not he was not living with her, or not giving her support, or whatever we don’t know, but “utterly deserted” by 1886 is what she says in her divorce suit. I’m still waiting for information. I have a records request into the Massachusetts superior court records, their archives, to find out. He pled guilty, but I don’t know if he was fined or jailed or whatever.
But I’ll tell you what I suspect.
What I do know is that when she filed the divorce suit she knew —and she informed the court — that he was living in San Angelo, Texas, under an alias. The alias was F.G. Allen.
JF: Now “Allen: was actually his middle name. I’m not sure wha the “F” stands for, but the “G” part stands for George.
JF: If you look at some of the records in the early 1890s, he is going by the name George Allen in Texas.
So what the courts required Clara to do is to place a notice in the local Boston paper, it was the Boston Post, saying basically that she she is filing for divorce, and if anyone has any objection, there’s going to an opportunity, like a hearing type- thing, on such and such as a date.
And, the court also required her to send him – to send George – a copy of that, along with another letter, more of a formal letter from the court, ordering him to appear on the first Monday in November of that year to provide any objections. Clara sends it be registered mail, which was required by the court. She just sends it to F. G. Allen in San Angelo, and of course, he got it pretty quickly.
HIs response was actually to the formal letter ordering him to appear. What he says is very simple, and I’ll read this directly: “I have no defense or reply to make to the libel.” Now “libel” is a misspelling, it should be “libelant” Clara). Basically he’s telling the court in the letter he wrote, dated October 10, 1899 that he has no defense or reply to this.
Now in Massachusetts at the time — and I think they may still have this — there was like cooling off period, a 6-month time in which the court would sit on it and not do anything, on the off-chance that the couple might get back together. It looks like almost exactly by that 6 months that Clara notified the court that they had not gotten back together, because 5 days later they said no objections had been raised by anybody and they made the divorce final.
Now what George ended up doing, he ended up leading a pretty permanent life down there in San Angelo. He did remarry, he married Beatrice Fitch on January 19, 1899.
Now I did come across a passage, there’s an article written by a fellow named Rhodes Baker. He writes about how is grandfather and George Allen were companions. He goes on to say that George came down to Texas to raise sheep, but ended up in the music business. It turns out he opened up a music shop and was selling pianos, and, I guess, sheet music. And he was being someting acclaimed down there as the man who brought music to San Angelo.
Because at that time, San Angelo — now, let me explain where this is. If I were to ask you to stick a pin right in the center of Texas, chances are you’d be hitting San Angelo, that’s where it is.
JF: And there wasn’t a whole lot around there that was musical, and George came, and he brought music to San Angelo, and he was held in high regard for that. He became quite an important person in that town. The town was small, in 1895, there was only like 2600 people in the entire town. It’s now a much larger town, there’s well over 100,000 there.
But back then he [George] was one of the original settlers who brought civilization to that town.
I have no idea how he got there. The music business kind of surprised me when I first came across that…
JF: … untill I came across an ad. Remember I asked you earlier to try to make a mental note of that 2 Olive street in Nashua, NH?
JF: Well, it turns out that was also the home of a company, E. C. Mason Piano and Organ Company.
LM: Oh, interesting!
JF: They were agents for Steinway, Chickering, Davis, Wilcox and White organs.. so, I’m wondering … well, he obviously knew them.
Well, I haven’t been able to really pin down that they were there when he was living there, but I suspect they were. And he must have known Mr. Mason, and maybe even went down to Texas on Mr. Mason’s recommendation, saying go down there, set up shop, and you can be a distributor.
He [George] was a very interesting man, and I guess it shows that it’s never too late to turn your life around.
But let me finish with one final quote that I came across in that article by Rhodes Baker. It says as a footnote to that article, — which was written in 2006 — it says “F. George Allen 1855-1939. Music, church and cycling were George Allen’s only loves until he renounced his bachelorhood and married Beatrice Fitch in 1899.” So, getting back to a comment you made earlier, Lee, about whether she knew about his past life, I get the feeling that not too many people did.
LM: Well, thank you so much, John! That is an incredible story. You did an amazing amount of detective work to trace the unexpected path of Clara Ober’s first husband George Ober, as we followed him, journeying from being a farmer and dairy man there in New England, to becoming a married stockbroker, and then a stock swindler (!) in Boston, and then ultimately moving to Texas, changing his name, and becoming the respected “music man” named George Allen in San Angelo, Texas.
I mean, who would’ve thought?!
Once again I really want to thank John Felix for sharing his research with us here today on the podcast.
Now, John is working on an article that goes into the Townes in more detail. I’ll provide more information about it whenever it’s available. I for one can’t wait to read it!
Again, thank you so much, John, for contacting me and sharing that information about the Townes.
That reminds me — if anyone else out there has been doing any research on any woman photographer that I’ve already profiled, or you think should be profiled here on the podcast, please drop me a line at podcast “at” p3photographers “dot” net. I’d love to hear from you and work together and craft a story about a woman that you’re working on.
Looking ahead to Season 2, I’m gonna be bringing you stories about the women that I’ve been researching as I traveled around the country this past year. We’ll meet women from the East Coast, the Midwest, and the West Coast, from all over just to prove that early women artisan photographers were not limited to one area, but it really was something that happened all over the United States.
To kick things off next time I’m gonna bring you the story of a woman that I find a little bit mysterious. I’ve actually traveled to California to try to figure out a little bit more about her.
This is a woman who encompasses the idea of travel from a different dimension, because she actually was an itinerant photographer, a woman who traveled from town to town, without having necessarily a home studio where she did most of her work.
She’s a fascinating woman, but there are mysteries that surround her. I will bring you all of those next time.
Next time I will also finally address the number one question I get about the title of the podcast, that is, “Why is the title Photographs, Pistols & Parasols?”
I mean, I talked in the Episode 8 about Elizabeth Whittington and her parasol recommendation for female photographers. But the number one question I get is why is it Pistols as well?
That mystery will be solved in the next episode.
For more information about any of the early women photographers profiled on the podcast, visit my website at p3photographers.net.
That’s letter p, number 3, photographers.net.
Or, drop me a line at podcast “at” p3photographers.net.
You can also follow me on facebook at www.facebook.com/p3photographers/.
Support for this podcast is provided by listeners like you. Check out my website at p3photographers.net for ideas on how you, too, can become a supporter of the project.
That’s it for today.
Until next time, I’m Lee, and this is Photographs, Pistols & Parasols.