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The Root Story: Episode 8 - N.M. Wilcox





Watch or listen to Episode 8 of The Root Story above


In February of 1845, Texas is poised to become the 28th state in the Union after spending just under a decade as its own country. The United States Congress approved what would later become the Lone Star State’s annexation and then it was up to Texas to decide if they would move forward.

This day hasn’t come easily. According to the Sam Houston Memorial Museum, Sam Houston takes note of the years long struggle of Texas’ statehood:

Sam Houston | Library of Congress

"Now my venerated friend, you will perceive that Texas is presented to the union as a bride adorned for her espousal. But if, now so confident of the union, she should be rejected, her mortification would be indescribable. She has sought the United States, and this is the third time she has consented. Were she now to be spurned it would forever terminate expectation on her part, and it would then not only be left for the United States to expect that she would seek some other friend, but all Christendom would justify her course dictated by necessity and sanctioned by wisdom."


Other countries have good reason to stop the potential union of the United States and Texas. Great Britain, is desperate to see Texas reject the United States’ offer if only to stop the expansion westward by the developing nation.


According to the Texas State Historical Association, Great Britain even approaches Mexico - who likewise would rather not see Texas join up with another county. Yes, Great Britain wants Mexico to try and tempt Texas away, and Mexico does make its own offer - if Texas will reject the United States’ offer for annexation, Mexico will break its years long stance of refusing to recognize Texas’ independence.

In short, if Texas will deny the United States, Mexico will officially recognize Texas as a country.


Two options, both equally sought at various times by the Republic.


When Congress makes their offer - their proposal, if you will, Texas faces a monumental decision. They have until January 1, 1846 to relay their answer and just a few days shy of the deadline, Texas accepts the proposal, cementing Texas' place as the 28th state of the United States of America.


As the nation waits to welcome the newest addition to the country...another family in nearby Mississippi is also adjusting to their own new addition, Nathaniel (other records list him as simply Nathan) Miles Wilcox Junior.

Born in January 1845 in Salem, Mississippi...to a Kentucky born father and an Illinois born mother, Nathaniel Miles Wilcox Junior (or N.M. Wilcox as he’ll later be known) is the second child in a family that will later include four boys and one girl. As so often is the case in these stories, we aren’t quite sure what his life is like specifically, but census records tell us part of the story.


In the 1850 United States Federal Census, we see the Wilcox family pop up in Tennessee for a time. But, by the 1860 census and perhaps even earlier, the family ends up in Texas.

"They settle in LaGrange and then his father dies in 1867," Megan Firestone, Head of Special Collections and Archives at Southwestern University, told The Root Story. "...so, Nathan and some of his older brothers move with their mother to Austin, where he works as a carpenter, which he'd learned from his father. His father had also been a carpenter and

done woodworking."


In 1865, Wilcox returns from a small two-year stint in the Civil War and resumes living with his mother and siblings where, as best we can tell, he continues to live until the 1880’s, when Wilcox moves to Burnet, Texas and meets his southern sweetheart, Minnie Sneed.

The two marry in 1882 and by the next year, Nathan and Minnie are parents after the birth of their first child Mary in 1883, according to Find a Grave, and the birth of their second child Seborn - named after Minnie’s father - the next year in 1884.

The Austin Weekly Statesman | Feb. 9, 1882

During this time, we can reasonably assume Nathan is continuing to hone his craft in woodworking - he is mentioned to be associated with the furniture house of D.W. Jones and Co. in the Austin American Statesman in the couples wedding announcement.


We also know the family keeps living in Burnet...and that the children keep on coming! In 1887, Nathan and Minnie welcome their third child Margaret into their family and then in 1889, their final child - Fannie is born.


In between these two last children...another birth of sorts is happening. In 1888, George Eastman introduces a product aimed at making photography, "as convenient as the pencil," according to Kodak. The first Kodak box camera promises to make photography more of a mainstay than in years past, according to Kodak.


"As they refine and work that, and especially, we see a lot of this come out of George Eastman, who founds Eastman Kodak, we get a photography process that's much easier for people to be able to create affordable portraits and have people come and sit in portraits, and they're not requiring as much of the equipment as once was required in the early days," Firestone said.


Photography took its first, meager baby steps in the 1820’s, according to PBS, and meager, if not cumbersome and awkward, steps they were.


"It required a lot of chemicals and a lot of work ,and a lot of tools in order to be able to take a picture," Firestone said.


Over the course of several decades, many people including George Eastman at Kodak, worked and tinkered with the photography process to make it more streamlined.


Which is what brings us to a series of many advancements that gently and maybe even unexpectedly puts Wilcox on a path that will alter the course of his life and his legacy. You see, while living in Burnet, Wilcox seems to take an interest in photography - even potentially showing off some of his work there in a gallery, according Firestone and an article in the June 9, 1887 edition of the Austin Weekly Statesman.

Austin Weekly Statesman | June 9, 1887

And somewhere in between children and Burnet, and photography, Wilcox and his family decide to move to Georgetown in 1887 where he takes his interest to new heights and begins to run his own photography business.

"He shows up as Georgetown is kind of hitting its development, because...Georgetown at this point is growing out of its... agrarian society," Firestone said. "It is the county seat, Southwestern has arrived in 1873. The railroad starts construction in 1878. So, the town is growing and developing. By the time he arrives, the population is just under 3,000 people, and 10 years before the population has just been a little over a thousand people."

Once settled in Georgetown, Wilcox decides to embark on a new kind of craft - nothing like the woodwork he used to do. No, he is instead building on his early experiments with photography and launches his own photography studio.


In the November 6, 1887 edition of the Austin American Statesman...N.M. Wilcox announces acquisition of a photography studio.


“Having bought the Photography Gallery of H.B. Hillyer & Son," the announcement reads, "...beg to announce that I will continue the business at the same stand...Turning out nothing, but first-class work, I feel confident of giving satisfaction. Your patronage is respectfully solicited. N.M. Wilcox, Photographer."

Nov. 6, 1887 | Austin American Statesman

"He opens up his studio and he starts...also billing himself as great for children portraits," Firestone said. "So, he takes a lot of children's portraits and family portraits."


Wilcox isn’t the only photographer in town either - there’s at least one other photographer in town - man named R.J. Stone - we’ll cover his story in a future episode.


Simply put, at the turn of the century, Georgetown is growing and has at least two resident photographers - one of them N.M. Wilcox. It doesn't take long either for Wilcox to turn his camera lens on more than just the people in his studio. Wilcox also begins documenting events and iconic buildings, his work even showing up in some editions of local newspapers.


For instance, in the August 13, 1899 edition of the Austin American Statesman, the name N.M. Wilcox appears in photographer credits over 10 times in just two pages alone in a spread about Georgetown. Across those two pages are pictures of people and places alike.

Aug. 13, 1899 | Austin American Statesman

Wilcox also makes an appearance in that paper himself - outside of photo credits. In the same August 13th, 1899 edition of the Austin American Statesman an entire column is dedicated to highlighting his work.


"There are few photographers in the south today who possess more truth artistic merit than N.M. Wilcox, Georgetown’s leading photographer," the article states. "For artistic and graceful posing, superb finish and excellent workmanship Mr. Wilcox occupies a high position among the leading photographers of Texas. For the past sixteen years he has been constantly engaged in the business and during that period has kept pace with the remarkable progress made in photography. He is the proprietor of one of the most complete and thoroughly equipped studios to be found in any city in Texas the size Georgetown. Mr. Wilcox has in his employ Mr. Dave Goodlet, an expert workman, who has been with him constantly since 1890.

Mr. Goodlet practically does all of the view work in that territory, besides which, to keep up with the times, he has put in a penny picture apparatus which enables him to make two dozen photos for 25 cents and on this work alone this gallery has had a very fine run, making Wilcox’s studio more popular than ever and adding very considerably to the pocket book of its proprietor."


Dave Goodlet isn't the only partner at the photography studio. Over the years, Wilcox brings on several partners, partners who come and go over the years.


And with each passing year, Wilcox also takes on an endeavor to capture more and more snapshots of Georgetown, a permanent glimpse into the city’s past and present for the future.


In the February 12 1891 edition of the Williamson County Sun, Wilcox issues a personal request to the Sun’s readers in the name of history.

July 26, 1894 | Williamson County Sun

"I am engaged in making a photographic group of the Pioneers of Williamson county. I will be very much obliged if everyone who is sixty years old, and over, and has been a resident of Williamson County for thirty years will call at my gallery in Georgetown and sit for a picture. I will prsent to each one, who will come, a photograph of himself and a copy of the whole group. The pictures will not be made of all at once but one at a time and grouped afterwards. It will be a pleasure to see all of your old comrades in one picture, besides it will be a nice “Souvenir” for your children and grandchildren. If anyone is too feeble to come to Georgetown, please notify me.

N.M. Wilcox, Photographer"


Wilcox’s passion for history doesn’t stop at his Pioneer project.


"He really documents a lot of the early history of Georgetown that if he hadn't captured it, we wouldn't maybe know as much as we do about because he did capture some of the original settlers," Firestone said. "He got images of the town, what it looked like.

We have an item in the collection, that's called the "Blue Souvenir," that he did, and part of it is, one, he's trying out a new photography process called Cyanotype. So, the images are blue, which is really fun. But, it's also a souvenir and it shows photographs of Georgetown that's done around the turn of the century. So...he's able to kind of freeze the town for us at different time periods, and now looking over a hundred years later, we're able to really look and see what Georgetown looked like as it's developing."


Outside his photography studio, Wilcox also connects with several community groups, including the Old Settlers Association, and does his part to help preserve city, county and even Texas History by offering illustrated lectures on Texas History, according to a December 1904 edition of the Austin American Statesman.

Dec. 11, 1904 | Austin American Statesman

Wilcox also continues to contribute to Texas history by capturing his own photos and collecting other historic photographs.


In 1906, for example, Wilcox tracks down, purchases and then gives the Texas State Library a rare and priceless gift indeed: a picture of Mrs. Joanna Troutman Pope Vision, the woman who made the very first Lone Star Flag

The local newspapers certainly caught hold of that headline.


“Photograph of Joanna Trouman in Austin Libary,” the October 30, 1906 edition of the Fort Worth Star Telegram reads. “A photograph of Joanna Vinson, was recently placed in the Texas State Library by Mr. Wilcox of Georgetown. Mr. Wilcox is a great lover of Texas history, and a warm friend of the state library...We consider this picture a perfect copy of the latest photography of Joanna Troutman Pope Vison, of Georgia, who in the beauty and glory of her young womanhood made and donated “The Lone Star Flag” to the company of brave volunteers who went from Georgia to fight for the independence of Texas in the war with Mexico...”

Oct. 30, 1906 | Fort Worth Telegram

In 1921, Wilcox decides to close his Georgetown photography shop and move he and Minnie to Austin to be with their daughter...who is working at the Texas State Library.


His work preserving Texas history, no doubt aided by his daughter’s involvement in the Texas


State Library...continues and it appears in his retirement, Wilcox returns briefly to his woodworking origins to give yet another gift to Texas history...In the January 2, 1925 edition of the Georgetown Megaphone...it reads.

Jan. 2, 1925 | Georgetown Megaphone

"Former Georgetown Citizen Presents State University Historic Gavel," the article states. "


Bits of wood from 10 of the most historic spots in this State have been combined with seven bits of mesquite wood from the site of Texas Memorial Stadium in a “stadium” gavel which will be presented to the board of regents of the University of Texas and will be used in the formal opening of the stadium on Thanksgiving Day...the maker of this marvelous bit of furniture is N.M. Wilcox, a 79-year-old patriot.”


The paper goes on to mention Wilcox’s photography career and even notes his collection of over a hundred pictures donated to the University of Texas is SO POPULAR...and on the road SO MUCH...the office clerks haven’t had time to catalogue in the over one year since it has been donated.


Towards the end of Wilcox’s life...it’s hard to tell whether his greatest impact has been in his photographs...or his historical research...or if both are equally powerful parts of his legacy.


In February 1932...N.M. Wilcox and Minnie celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. Just four years after that, in fact, just four days after their 54th wedding anniversary, N.M. Wilcox passes away at the age of 91 in his home.

Newspaper headlines capture his legacy in headlines calling him a historian, and the tales of his Mississippi beginnings, his lifetime spent in Texas and his dedication to preserving her history through photo and research hang on the minds and hearts of those who know him.


In the days that followed his passing, even as far as today, in each tale, each article and each tribute to Wilcox, we see Wilcox and his contributions through the eyes of those who followed or knew him.


But, we can always catch a glimpse of Wilcox’s life the way he saw it, when we look at his photographs and see just for a moment...the world through Wilcox’s lens.

© 2020 by Root Story Studios.

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Sydney Decker

Georgetown, Texas

​​

Tel: (512) 686 - 6945

​Email: sydney@rootstorystudios.com