The “Hermits” of Minnehaha Park. Part 2.

During the later part of the 19th century, photography was in the midst of a major transition as an art form.  Since its invention, photographers had concentrated on likenesses and “fidelity to nature.”  But as the 19th century wound down, they began producing images in the style of paintings, moody and atmospheric works of art.

A group of women on the sore, staring out to the sea that is just out of frame on the left.
“Watching for the Return” by Alfred Steiglitz.

Evocative photographs like this one helped define photography as an art form. This image was exhibited by the Minneapolis Camera Club and the Fine Arts Society at their first joint photographic salon in February 1903. Steiglitz was a nationally prominent artistic photographer in the Photo Secession movement.

In 1892, the Minneapolis Camera Club was formed. The club produced photography exhibits, at first simply showing their members’ works at their club rooms. Around the turn of the century, the Camera Club affiliated with the Society of Fine Arts, today’s Minneapolis Institute of Arts.  The science of photography was clearly becoming a new art form.

These organizations collaborated on photography salons. They extended nation-wide invitations to artists working to redefine the photograph as art.  There was always room for the Camera Club members to exhibit in these salons.  And the club had more frequent local photograph showings, too.

One devoted club member was a man named Arus S. Williams. He served as club treasurer for a few years, and often had series of photographs in the various exhibits.  Williams had arrived in Minneapolis in the 1870s. He knocked around at a series of clerk jobs for book and stationery stores for years. He became a commercial photographer in 1898.  By 1900, he was employed at The Minneapolis Journal newspaper as a photographer. His were not the more painterly photographs then coming into vogue.  Perhaps his job in journalism was an influence here.

Also during this transitional time at the turn of the last century, and as the Park Board took control of Minnehaha Falls, the photographic record of the Falls begins to peter out. In part, that’s because amateur photography had become possible. Photography had become easier, portable, and less expensive. The job of professional souvenir-taking photographer at Minnehaha Falls did not last long into 1890s.

Given how thin the record becomes, it is always a pleasure to identify some new detail about an image in the archives, especially a rare one. While researching the “hermits” in Minnehaha Park, this image came to light:

a color postcard showing a small shack, labeled "The Hermit Below Minnehaha"
First published in this blog on 14 August 2016, with this caption: “This postcard may show the home of the ‘hermit’ who probably was named James McKnight. It was mailed in 1909, during the postcard craze of the early 20th century. It is not known when this picture was taken.” – archive

It turns out that a very, very similar picture was shown by Arus S. Williams in a Camera Club exhibit in May 1902.  The newspaper that employed him had a large and splashy article about his “Home Sweet Home” series in the exhibit.

a grainy half tone picture of a small shack along the river.
Screen captures of grainy half-tones scanned from 100-year-old newspapers are basically lousy images. This picture is not improved by being displayed any larger. Here’s more reason to think that this is the home of James McKnight, “hermit.” –taken by Arus S. Williams

Williams’ “Home Sweet Home” series also included a picture of a sod house.

A small lump of a house, covered with vines. Obviously so small that it is a single room.
Another grainy picture. This small sod house has a single window and a small chimney. The owner is standing in the doorway. –taken by Arus S. Williams

It is unknown why Arus Williams called this “A Sod House of the Western Prairie.”  Many of the viewers at the Camera Club exhibit or readers of The Journal would have known that this picture was not taken on the western prairies, but right in Minnehaha Park.  The Hermit William Herrick is standing in his doorway.

7 thoughts on “The “Hermits” of Minnehaha Park. Part 2.”

  1. LOVE Steiglitz’s photography!

    The Arus Williams photos are interesting, but do actual print exist? You’re right: scans from old newspapers are too grainy, even at small size.

    1. I do have 4 glass negatives on the paper sleeves of which is written :Minnehaha falls by Williams”. I could send you scans of them if you are interested.

  2. I found it interesting, also, that the ladder leaning against the McKnight shanty in Williams’ 1902 shot is still there in the postcard picture mailed in 1909. Of course, it’s possible that the postcard shot was taken around the same time…

    1. I think that Williams took both shots on the same day, moving closer to the shanty to get past the trees that frame the postcard image. I think he shot them in the late 1890s, when McKnight was still on the riverbank. And that he sold the images to a postcard maker before 1910.

      Williams didn’t last long as a newspaper photographer. He eventually was taken in and given a job by Charles Hibbard, a local photographer and friend from Williams’ days as an active Camera Club member. But by 1910, he was in the sanatorium called Hopewell Hospital. He died in 1911, presumably of the tuberculosis he had been hospitalized for. I have assumed that he sold his shanty image to support himself when he was too ill to work, even for a friend.

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