Early Photographers Captured Northville History
Images provide a visual record of the way we were.
Much of what we know of Northville’s past is from writings of early settlers, oral histories of longtime residents and accounts from newspaper articles, diaries, journals and letters. Collectively, these documents tell our story.
These materials and much more are housed in the archives of the Northville Historical Society with some of the earliest records dating to the settlement of the community in the 1820s.
Though their importance cannot be overemphasized, it is the visual documentation dating from the late 1850s onward that provides us with a tangible glimpse of what we looked like as a community.
Though millers, cobblers, carriage makers, blacksmiths and the like once dominated Northville’s business district, we know there were more than a few photographers that established studios downtown. More often than not, studio photographers spent as much or more time outside of their studio photographing landscapes, street scenes and newsworthy events.
Their efforts have provided us with priceless imagery and a historical record of life in Northville dating back to the second half of the 19th century. Among the photographs housed in the Northville Historical Society’s Archives are images of Northville’s downtown dating back to the 1860s when most of the buildings were wood frame structures. We can trace the evolution of the downtown from its austere beginnings through the construction of the first brick building and the eventual development of the downtown.
Historic photographs serve to remind us how far we’ve come, but also what we’ve lost. We know from photographs that Northville once boasted a grand opera house, a train station, electric streetcars, a thriving manufacturing district and numerous lumber and grist mills. It also had its share of billiard parlors, taverns and cigar stores.
We can put faces to the names of early settlers such as Yerkes, Cady, Clarkson, Dubuar and others. We have images of the community’s first high school, fire station, village hall and library.
Perhaps the most iconic images are the candid photographs of every day life — teams hauling logs from the lumber mill; travelers waiting outside the Park House hotel; horses, interurban cars and the village’s first automobiles vying for space on Northville’s Main Street; and residents crowding the sidewalks for Northville’s 1919 Decoration Day parade to honor its returning World War I soldiers.
Photographers were often anonymous and uncredited. Studio photographers would sometimes emboss their name on the corner of a portrait. Landscapes and street scenes rarely were marked.
Directories and newspaper advertising provide some information about Northville’s early photographers. Among the first recorded was John Bishop, who in 1869 owned a photographic studio above the Jackson & Horton drug store on Center Street.
By the 1890s, Brown & Co. opened a “fine arts studio” that specialized in photography. Brown provided one of the few visual records of the 1899 fire that devastated Northville’s Globe Furniture Company, then the largest manufacturer of church and school furniture in the world. Brown’s images of the fire were featured in The Northville Record. Unfortunately, the negatives and prints of that event have not been found.
The photographer that seemed to be among the most prolific, and whose images remain among the most historically iconic, was L.L. Ball. Though only cursory research has been done on Ball, we do know a little about his life.
Born in Milan in 1879, Lyman L. Ball married Genevieve Freeler in 1899. His first photography studio was in Rochester, Mich. In 1904, he moved his photography business to Northville. He and his wife Genevieve appear on the April 1910 Northville census. At one time, Ball’s studio was located on the second floor of the mid-block building (now housing Simply Wine and other businesses) on the west side of North Center Street. The waiting room for the interurban was housed on the first floor with Ball’s shop above.
We also know that by 1926, Ball had moved his studio to another location, most likely in Plymouth. An article in the February 12, 1926 edition of The Northville Record, noted that Ball “will be located in his new studio over the Palace Market on Saturday.” The article further stated that “Ball has put a lot of time and a good sum of money to put the rooms in condition for a studio and when all contemplated plans and improvements have been completed will have one of the most attractive and convenient studios in the state.”
Unlike many of his predecessors, Ball signed his photographs. Several of his images are housed in the Northville Historical Society Archives including studio portraits of prominent citizens, Northville’s baseball team, and school photographs.
Perhaps Ball’s most famous images are his photographs of the 1907 Pere Marquette Train Wreck in Northville Township. Michigan’s worst passenger train collision, the accident killed 33 people and injured 100 others. Ball’s images recorded the near battlefield carnage of the horrific event.
Though he ended his photographic career in Plymouth, many longtime Northville residents recall having their picture taken at his studio. Ball died in 1946.
While information about Northville’s early photographers remains elusive, their visual storytelling captures our history, providing us with a timeless snapshot of the way we were.
In 2010, the Northville Historical Society launched Faces & Places, an initiative to raise funds for the preservation, restoration and acquisition of historic documents and photographs housed in its Archives. For further information about this effort, please contact the Northville Historical Society at 248 – 348-1845.
Anyone with photographs of Northville or information about its early photographers can contact Michele Fecht at email@example.com or Heidi Nielsen, Archivist and Curator, Northville Historical Society, at firstname.lastname@example.org