It is hard to let unanswered questions go for very long. As an update to last week’s post “North Carolina Room and a Recent Donation Gets Media Coverage,” the obvious question facing all of us was “Who was the photographer?” A school librarian from Albany, New York, Lucy Menard, had sent us a 1904 photo album out of the blue. So, we took the time to find out. Was he (or she: there was one female photographer) local or not? We assumed it was a professional photographer since the photographs were of professional quality. We found nine photographers listed in the 1904-05 city directory. We actually had a handwriting sample of one of those photographers, Ignatius Brock, but when we compared it to the writing in the 1904 photo album, it didn’t match.
Then we remembered that when scanning the photos with a magnifying glass, we had found in an image of Pack Square a banner with the words “I.O.O.F. Excursion to Waynesville, August 18, $1.00.” Therefore the picture must have been taken before August 18th, after which they would have taken promotional banner down.
We also surmised that the photos were taken in July or August of 1904, since all of the trees were fully leafed out. Not having any other resources at hand, we started reading microfilm of the Asheville Citizen and the Asheville Daily Gazette, looking for any clues–perhaps a note about a visiting photographer, or, less likely, one of the images from our album published in one of the papers.
What we did find were two interesting things. First, the International Order of Oddfellows, known as I.O.O.F., had gathered a group of over 200 for their August trip, so this confirmed the date of the album. We also found a fairly prominent ad for Asheville photographer, James M. McCanless. No other photographers had ads listed. In fact there were no other photographs printed in the papers during this period.
Another note in an “About Town” column mentioned that McCanless was exhibiting in his studio some photos of mountains he had taken the previous year in the western part of the United States.
It was enough of a hint to go on. So searching through our database of the 16 photos we have by McCanless, we found a postcard made from one of the photos in our album! The photographer’s name on our postcard is written on the bottom right. (See below.) We also have a colorized version of the same image that did not display his name. Note that the I.O.O.F. banner shown in the original image above has been edited out of the postcard.
James M. McCanless was born in 1858 in McDowell County, the son of John Kelton McCanless and Mary Caroline Haupt McCanless. James M. McCanless was in Asheville at least by 1890, set up in the photography business with his brother Samuel A. McCanless. Samuel McCanless gathered a certain amount of local fame by winning one of W.O. Wolfe’s (Asheville monument maker and father of famed author Thomas Clayton Wolfe) marble angels in a poker game! In the family photograph below, James is seated first on left and Samuel is seated to the right.
In this later photo of the seven McCanless brothers, James M. is second from right and Samuel is standing beside him on the far right.
McCanless continued to have various shops around Pack Square through 1918. Serendipitously, the sign for his shop shows up in one of the photographs in the album. Click on the image below to see an enlarged crop of the sign.
Jon Elliston, reporter for the Carolina Public Press who first published the story about the album and how it got to us, did some McCanless research himself and found a newspaper story from 1907 that gives a more colorful picture of the man.
According to a story in the November 15, 1907 issue of the Raleigh News and Observer, McCanless was a member of All Soul’s Episcopal Church in Biltmore and sang with the choir. The previous Sunday after services, choir master Prof. Flaxington Harker, “while in a disagreeable frame of mind” had scolded several choir members—including McCanless—for “gazing around the church and not kneeling during prayers.” McCanless retorted that he always knelt during prayer and never gazed around during services, which the choirmaster stoutly denied. McCanless stormed out of the room. Several days later, when he ran into Harker on the street, he lashed out, “brushing the organist up considerably.”
So in addition to being a fine photographer, we now know he was also a musician, an Episcopalian…..and, well, a bit of a bruiser.
McCanless is listed in city directories after 1918 through 1923 by name and as a photographer, but no longer as a photographer in the business listings. McCanless and his wife Lula and several younger children moved to Saint Petersburg, Florida where McCanless died December 18, 1942. [Death information from an entry on Find a Grave by local researcher Vance Pollock who found the obituary for James M. Mc Canlesses on Google Newspaper Archives.]
It has been much fun to see all of the interest and comments on this story. We are grateful for all of the comments and the work of further researchers working to unravel the questions pertaining to this wonderful donation to our collection.
Post by librarian Zoe Rhine.