Monday, February 29, 2016

Henry Beecher Wesner
1853–1932 San Bernardino Photographer

By Richard D. Thompson

Henry B. Wesner (detail)
Courtesy Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois

Henry B. Wesner was a native of Pennsylvania, one of eight children born to parents Anthony and Julia Wesner of German ancestry. His birth date was September 27, 1853, according to the website Find-A-Grave. When he was eleven years old the family moved to Galesburg, Illinois.

At age 25 Henry married Josephine C. Biggerstaff and in May of 1878 their only child, daughter Georgia, was born. By the 1880 federal census he had made his way to California and lived in the Los Nietos (Whittier) area, where he was a farmer.

In 1881 he moved to San Bernardino, and two years later began his photographic studio (San Bernardino Courier, January 1, 1892). When he registered to vote he gave his occupation as “photographer” and signed his name Henry B. Wesner, giving the date as April 28, 1883. This is only important because he almost always used his initials, “H. B.” Wesner, and the registration helps identify him from a myriad of other Wesners.

In 1884 Henry’s elder brother Michael A. Wesner (born 1852) moved to San Bernardino and the pair decided to become partners in the photography enterprise, calling their business “The Imperial Photographic Parlors.”

The Imperial Photographic Parlors, Burt Block
Courtesy of the author
That same year, 1884, the Republican ticket for President and Vice President consisted of James G. Blain and John A. Logan. A big barn-like building was rented as party headquarters in San Bernardino. It had a huge sign over the door advertising the candidates with the heading “Republican Wigwam.”

Henry took a stereoview photograph of this building and sign, and on the stereoview card stamped “Republican Wigwam” together with the year, 1884. On the right side of the card the Wesner series “Views of California Scenery” was printed and on the left side was “H. B. Wesner.” The use of this name indicates that the photo may have preceded the partnership or that Henry was using up some preprinted stereo cards he had in stock. Collectors should be aware that an “H. B. Wesner” photograph could have been taken at any time during his career, 1883–96, but that The Imperial Photographic Parlors was probably from the time of the partnership with his brother, 1884–89.

H. B. Wesner, Republican Wigwam, 1884
Courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley
At some point the partners acquired what they named the “Wesner Brothers Photographic Car” (San Bernardino Daily Courier June 15, 1889). This may have been similar to another San Bernardino photographer’s traveling studio, namely William A. Vale, who had a railroad car made up to contain his photographic equipment—cameras, developing chemicals, dark room, studio, etc.—and painted “Photographic Car” on it. A sign identified him as the photographer, W. A. Vale, with the words “photographic gallery.” A picture of this car taken at Spadra in about 1876 faces page 6 in Philip D. Nathanson’s excellent book, William Adams Vale: Pioneer Photographer 1870–1887, Los Angeles, 2011. It is not unlikely that Vale sold the photographic car to the Wesners, either upon his retirement in 1887 or at some point earlier. 

H. B. Wesner, Carte-de-visite of an Infant Named Willie,
Wesner’s Photographic Car, San Bernardino, 1886
Courtesy of Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum, City of Industry, California
Throughout the years Henry is shown to be very sociable. He participates in debating societies, he is an actor in various plays and offers up his studio for use as a rehearsal hall. He joins social societies and is appointed an officer on various boards of directors for commercial and governmental institutions. The newspapers record Henry and Josephine’s attendance at several weddings of well-known San Bernardino families.

H. B. Wesner, Untitled [New River, Los Angeles], c. 1890
William Hammond Hall Collection, California Historical Society
In June of 1888 the San Bernardino Daily Courier carried several stories about a trip to the mission at San Juan Capistrano made by a large group of San Bernardino tourists. This excursion was by rail, on the newly completed California Southern Railroad. The outing was sponsored by the Old Boys’ Club and by the San Bernardino Society of California Pioneers, who asked Henry to accompany the group and take some photographs. Copies of these, in large-size cabinet photo format, still exist in the archives of the Society.

H. B. Wesner, Pioneer Society and Old Boys Club at Mission San Juan Capistrano, 1888
Courtesy City of San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society
Also in 1888 brother Michael was married and the following year he and his wife, Laura (1900 Census), moved to Los Angeles, thus ending the photography studio partnership. A fire in the building in which the studio was located may have contributed to the split. The Burt Block, a building located in the center of the business district on Third Street—and the location of Wesner’s studio—caused major damage and the structure had to be rebuilt (San Bernardino Daily Courier August 23, 1889). Michael opened his own studio on West First Street in Los Angeles, and in November began advertising his business in the Los Angeles Herald.

Inset, Birdseye View Map of San Bernardino, 1887
Courtesy City of San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society
The photography business was fiercely competitive during Henry’s time, and the San Bernardino Directory for 1887 listed five photographers. The population of the entire county was only slightly more than 7,000, so the customer was truly king. Henry tried what today would be called a loss leader: he offered to do a cabinet card of babies one year old or less, and do it for free. This offer was good for one day each month and the reception for the initial sitting was described as “tumultuous.”

The Burt block was rebuilt and Henry moved back into a second-story rental. The April 28, 1890, issue of the San Bernardino Daily Courier carried an announcement that Henry’s studio was again in operation and that there was to be a Grand Opening.

Shortly after that Henry began advertising that he would give away a life-size “Crayon portrait” at the studio. In October, samples of Henry’s crayon portraits were shown at the County Fair. This was a process popular from 1860 to 1900 and began with enlarging a photograph onto drawing paper with a weak emulsion that produced a faint image. The artist then drew over the portrait with a pencil (not a crayon). The result could be stunning— depending on the artist’s skill. From a distance it looked like a photo, but up close it could be seen to be a drawing.

It was a testament to his expertise when he was chosen by the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors to travel the county and photograph the most “interesting” views he could find. The Pacific Coast Photographer (Volume 2, 1894, p 406) stated that “the work involved an immense amount of traveling on the part of the artist” and that he, Henry, provided 120 photos, all sized 14 x 17 inches. Photographer F. C. Freyett of Redlands assisted Henry and provided an additional 28 photographs. As yet, examples of this project and format as commissioned by the Board have not been found and it is not known if any survived.

Imperial Photographic Parlors, Portrait of Unknown Man
Courtesy City of San Bernardino Public Library
At some point Henry decided he did not want to be a photographer for the rest of his life and he began to study law. He had not finished his college degree when a young man, but in those days it was not required to have a law degree in order to the take the state Bar exam. It was the practice to study law under the tutelage of an experienced member of the Bar. The San Bernardino County Sun mentioned in his obituary that he studied under Jesse W. Curtis, who was acknowledged to be an extraordinary talent during his time as a lawyer, and later went on to sit on the California Supreme Court bench. Henry was admitted to the Bar in Los Angeles in 1895.
 
On April 23, 1896, Henry announced in the newspaper that he had “grown weary” of the photography business and was closing his studio. He left on that day and returned home to Illinois. He made his home in Chicago and practiced law for about 10 years until ill health forced him to retire to a farm in Persifer Township, Illinois, just east of Galesburg, Henry passed away on August 1, 1932, in Galesburg.

When she was quite elderly his only child, Georgia Wesner Ellsworth, created an endowment with Knox College in her father’s name. She also donated some photographs and a picture of a portrait of her father. The portrait looks as if the original might be a colorized photograph, and as it is likely this was one of Henry’s talents, it could have been colorized by him. Thanks to his daughter, we have pictures of Henry Beecher Wesner himself.

Henry B. Wesner
Courtesy Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois
Richard D. Thompson has a Master’s degree in History from the University of California, Riverside, and is presently the Librarian Emeritus of the City of San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society. 
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