Biographies | George Wall
Webster’s first Historical Photographer began life on May 16, 1857, on a farm at the northeast corner of Wall and Holt Roads, and after his death on August 3, 1932, was buried in Webster Rural Cemetery at the intersection of Holt and Ridge Roads. Like many of his contemporaries, George stayed in Webster for much of his life.
George Wall’s father Lyman Wall (1828 -1904) was a teacher and a “scientific gardener” who originated 26 varieties of seed potatoes. During Prohibition, Lyman wrote and lectured about the issue and wrote agricultural articles for the Rural New Yorker. Lyman married Eveline Langdon (1827-1914) in September 1852. Both Lyman and Eveline were children of Webster pioneers. Lyman’s parents, Ebenezer and Hannah Wall, had a farm on Shoemaker Road and Eveline grew up in a little brick house on her family’s farm at 865 Klem Road. Lyman and Eveline’s son George was born in 1857, four years after his brother Langdon (1853-1937). In 1880, Langdon would become a charter member of the Webster Grange, Number 436.
Despite George’s agricultural upbringing, life on the farm was not for him. He did, however, carry on his father’s inventive tendencies. While still living with his family on Holt Road, he repaired clocks, watches, and violins. He even tried his hand at making violins. His whole life, he taught himself everything he needed to know. Well before he married, In 1881, George moved from his family home into the village to run a very successful jewelry and general repair shop in the former Hawley store on the southeast corner of South Avenue and East Main Street.
In 1887, George married Ida May Burrows (1860-1917) of Holt Road close to where George was born and buried. They had four children, Hollis (1888-1969), Osmond (1892-1986) Roger (1894-1990 and Evelyn (Skinner Hillers, 1903-1999). Roger would carry on the family’s inventive character in his own way, pursuing woodworking and employment in a birdhouse factory.
When his jewelry and repair shop building was sold in 1906 to G. H. Witmer, George purchased the former Corning and Hawley home just south of his first shop. This is now, in 2020, the site of Willard Scott Funeral Home. He converted the front of the house into a jewelry store he called “The Little Shop Around the Corner,” eventually expanding his repair services to include bicycles. As a boy, George had frequently ridden the first high-wheeled bicycle in the town, similar to the Neuert bicycle at the Webster Museum. His shop was authorized as well to sell bicycles made in Buffalo.
As the times changed, so did George. He soon added Christmas, graduation, and wedding gifts as well as an optical business in his “Little Shop,” becoming Webster’s first optometrist/optician. No wonder historian Esther Dunn called him a “versatile merchant.”
An undated advertisement had this to say:
GEORGE WALL: WATCHMAKER, JEWELER, OPTICIAN, ETC.
Mr. Wall has been engaged in this business in Webster since 1881 and the fact that he has always been kept busy presupposes that his work has always been satisfactory. He is a practical watchmaker and is prepared to undertake everything in the line of watch and clock repairing, jewelry setting and repairing, in fact, everything connected with the watchmaker’s trade. He is also a practical optician and carries a full stock of optical goods, is prepared to test the eyes and fit them with proper lenses. His goods are fitted in gold, gold-filled, silver, or steel frames, and are warranted for ten years, which of itself is a sufficient guarantee of the genuineness of his work. His prices are extremely moderate and all work is, as before stated, made satisfactory, therefore his patrons need have no hesitation in placing their orders in his hands.
That interest in lenses and his inventive nature led to an interest in photography. His first small camera produced 3×5 photographs. He later bought a professional wooden camera that produced larger, glass-plate negatives. In an undated interview with museum staff, George’s son Roger recalled that the camera folded, sat on a tripod, and had a skirt-like sheet that went over his head. Sometimes he used flash powder, but usually, George made everyone sit still until there was a perfect pose. When taking pictures of his family, he would tie a string around his toe to activate the camera. Many of George’s photos of Webster and of his family can be found in the office of the Town Historian at the Webster Museum, many family photos but there were even more of Webster.
George Wall, like many of his contemporaries, made time to serve his community. He served on the Village Board, as President of the Board of Health, and as President of the Board of Education. Because George owned a large professional camera, was a talented self-taught photographer, processed his own high-quality work, and was involved in civic matters in the village, he was often called upon to take photos of groups, scenes, and events in town. He covered every kind of event, from Fourth of July celebrations to the Hojack Line derailment. He did no portrait work except for his family, but did take school pictures. Some of his photos were printed in postcard format and sold locally. His photographs appeared in The Webster Herald as well as in various celebratory publications including the 1980 Village of Webster’s Diamond Jubilee Celebration booklet. As a result of his willingness to document daily life, Webster has an exceptional photographic record of the area from 1890-1925.
It is frightening how close Webster came to losing this important record of its history.
When the Hawley store closed, George’s glass plate negatives were left in the basement, forgotten. The Hawley family gave the plates to Village Attorney Gerry Barrett who kept them safe until they could be printed through the cooperative efforts of Empire State Weeklies and the predecessor of the Webster Museum, the Webster Through The Years museum. His photographs are an important legacy for Webster.
George Wall was honored with the recognition of his contributions to Webster and his posthumous designation as Webster’s first Photographic Historian in May of 1983.
Thank you, George.
- Ancestry. Accessed August 2020. https://www.ancestry.com
- -1925 New York State Census
- -1910, 1920, and 1930 United States Federal Census.
- -Rochester City Directories for 1903-1919
- -New York Death Index, 1852-1956
- Dunn, Esther. Webster Through The Years. Webster, New York: Webster Town Board, 1970, p. 137.
- Find A Grave. Accessed August 2020.https://www.findagrave.com
- “George Wall Honored as Photographic Historian.” Webster Herald, May 4, 1983.
- Wall File of clippings photos and unpublished research papers. Webster Historian’s office. Accessed August 2020.