Joe Hammersla and the Pryor Boys, King Studio, Hagerstown
This cabinet card photograph of a group of men drew me with its appealing sense of playful, relaxed spontaneity and emotional expressiveness, rare qualities in nineteenth century photographs.
Taken at the studio of William Brown King in Hagerstown, Maryland, this portrait also attracted me because of the identifications on the back: Scott Pryor, James Pryor, Clinton Draper, John Pryor, and, mysteriously, the name “Hammerslea.”
Kelbaugh’s Directory of Maryland Photographers 1839-1900 dates King photos marked 46 & 48 W. Washington Street, Hagerstown, to the period 1891-1901. This gave me a rough way to gauge the birth dates of the men. The younger men had to be in their early to mid-twenties, so they would have been born in the 1860s-1870s, and the elderly central figure couldn’t have been born much later than the 1840s.
So, off to ancestry.com I went to start researching possible candidates. I ended up creating a tree for the Pryor family, eventually focusing on the descendants of Jacob Pryor (1805-1889), a Frederick County farm laborer and stave-maker.
His son, John Emmanuel Pryor, had in turn three sons who are good candidates for the three young Pryors in this photo.
John Emmanuel Pryor was a shoemaker who lived in the Hauvers district of Frederick County, Md. His sons, Millard Scott Pryor (1860-1937), John Tracy Pryor (1862-1944), and James Albert Pryor (1872-1919), fit the bill.
Millard, who sometimes went by Scott M. Pryor, married Carrie Redman, and worked as a laborer in the Catoctin district of Frederick County. He eventually got work as a track sweeper, but on these modest means raised seven children.
Brother John Tracy Pryor scraped by as a day laborer. He lost his wife, Alice Swope, before 1900 and was left with two children, romantically named Commodore Perry Pryor and Beatrice Pryor. No doubt John’s mother, with whom they lived, helped to raise them. Their situation improved after 1920: He owned his own farm, and his son Commodore Perry had a good job as a mail carrier.
James Albert Pryor, who worked as a molder in a machine shop, raised six children on Ringgold Road with his wife Carrie Winters Pryor.
Young Clinton Albert Draper (1872-1960) related via marriage to the Pryors via his aunt Urillia E. Draper’s marriage to Robert E. Pryor, turned out to be the adventurer of the group: With his wife, Irene Toms Draper, he lived in Iowa and North Dakota before emigrating to Saskatchewan, Canada in 1916 with their three children, Franklin, Emeline, and John.
Clinton Albert Draper appears on Canadian voter lists as a farmer in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, in 1935 and 1945, and then in Midale, Saskatchewan in the 1950s; he died in Midale, and may be buried there.
But the star of the show is clearly Joseph Absalom Hammersla (1832-1912). Looking away to the left of the camera, he relaxes in the center of all this crowding, boyish energy like a man who knows where he belongs in the world and rests content.
I’m confident in my identification because another researcher on ancestry.com posted a different portrait that matches mine unmistakably.
A prosperous miller, he was born in Frederick, Maryland and died in Berkeley County, West Virginia. During the Civil War, he served on the Union side with the 1st Maryland Cavalry Potomac Home Brigade. According to an article on old mills in the Martinsburg, West Virginia Journal, Joseph Hammersla bought the Eversole mill on Tullis’s Branch in 1891, and descendants operated it to grind grain and cut lumber into the 1920s.
I also found an advertisement in the Hagerstown, Md. Herald and Torchlight for “Old Uncle Joe Hammersla’s Saloon,” dated 27 September 1876. The saloon offered “frogs, pigs feet, tripe,” and “Genuine Milwaukee Lager,” among other delights, “under the Lyceum,” a lecture and performance hall located near the Washington County Courthouse on West Washington Street.
He was appointed postmaster of Littletown, Berkeley County, West Virginia in 1895. He and his second wife Indiana Morris Hammersla (1848-1929) are buried in Rose Hill Cemetery, Hagerstown, Md.
Hammersla moved to Hedgesville, Berkeley County, West Virginia, between 1870 and 1880, so this photograph may have been taken on a visit back to Hagerstown.
My authority on the life and career of William Brown King is Stephen Recker, author of Rare Images of Antietam and the Photographers Who Took Them.
Brown trained in the Baltimore studio of James S. Cummins. Brown came to Hagerstown with his wife, Lelia Hall King, and their son William F. King, in the late 1880s.
Both King and his wife had fathers who’d served in the Civil War: King’s on the Union side and Hall’s on the Confederate. King’s father, Robert G. King (1834-1886), was a major in Co. C, Purnell’s Legion, Maryland Infantry. Lelia’s father, James Reid Hall (1830-1904), was a sergeant with Co. A, 40th Virginia Infantry. The two had faced each other in some of the same battles, including the Seige of Petersburg.
All of the subjects in King’s portrait are dressed in rough work clothes and scuffed boots, perhaps reflecting the spontaneous nature of the photograph. They lean together and on one another, affectionate and informal and filled with life. While we may never know what brought these five men together on that day, we still feel the glow of their vigorous humanity.