I was recently in need of a museum day, and so I drove out to Cullowhee, NC to the Mountain Heritage Center. I was interested in seeing a group of photographs by North Carolina photographer Mary Bayard Morgan Wootten, whose archive is held by the library at UNC Chapel Hill. Wootten’s is not exactly a household name, not even here in North Carolina, but I’d read enough about her to know I wanted to learn more.
The very short version of her biography is that she was born (1875) and reared in New Bern, NC, was educated at what is now UNC Greensboro, which was at the time a school to train women to be teachers. She did teach art for a while, and eventually married and had two sons. Her husband went off to the West, looking for fortune, leaving Bayard and the small boys abandoned. Back in New Bern she worked as a decorative painter, but realized that there was more money to be made in photography.
She set up a photography studio in 1904, and her biggest money-maker was taking the portraits of guardsmen at nearby Camp Glenn. Her reputation grew, and in the 1920s she moved her studio to Chapel Hill, where she was the official photographer of Yackety Yack, the UNC yearbook. But her interest went beyond the studio, and during the 1920s through the 1950s, she traveled the Carolinas documenting people as they lived. As a result, there is a vast archive of photographs showing the people of the Carolinas.
These top two photos are of Bayard, and were probably taken by her brother, George Moulton, who was her partner in the Chapel Hill studio. The Wootten Archive contains over 90,000 items. Unfortunately there was a fire at the studio in the early 1930s, so most of the photos and negatives post-date the fire. Still, this was the time when Wootten did most of her documentary work.
All the illustrations for this post are my photos of the exhibition, so please pardon the reflections. All the photos can be enlarged with a click.
Information for each photograph was somewhat limited, and I’m not sure if that is due to curatorial decision or the lack of documentation in the archive. This photo was labeled Mrs. Wilma McNabb’s Porch, Western North Carolina, 1930s. I love Wilma’s stylish dress, and the fact that it reputes the idea that mountain women were still in sunbonnets and prairie-style dresses in the twentieth century.
Gossips, [Western North Carolina] 1930s
Wootten was often commissioned to make photos to illustrate books. This one can be found in Olive Tilford Dargan’s 1941 book, From My Highest Hill: Carolina Mountain Folks.
Weaver at Penland, North Carolina, circa 1934
Wootten also made many photos of crafts people at work at Penland School of Crafts. Located near Spruce Pine, NC, Penland was founded by a cousin of Wootten’s, Lucy Morgan. In this case we know that the weaver is Mae Gouge.
This photograph was labeled as being in a Greensboro textile mill, 1940s. It’s actually earlier, as evidenced by the clothing and hair of the women workers. They are inspecting the bolts of cloth.
Late 1920s, early 1930s is my estimate. And even though child labor laws had been enacted, look at how young some of the girls are. And even though their pay was very small, these young women managed to be somewhat fashionable, even on the job.
This is a textile spinning room, possibly in the same mill as the above one. By the 1930s, mechanization had reduced the number of workers needed in a spinning room, and the spindle tenders were often very overworked.
This was probably my favorite of all the photographs. Taken in Crossnore, NC, the surgeons are doctors Mary and Eustice Sloop. Mary Sloop wrote a book about her experiences as a mountain doctor, and the formation of a school in Crossnore. The couple preferred to operate outdoors due to the poor lighting in the buildings. The presence of the three women in street clothing is a bit puzzling. Maybe they were family members of the man on the table.
The Mountain Heritage Center is part of Western Carolina University. The exhibits are in temporary quarters in the library, but will be moving to a new visitor’s center when it is completed. That’s good, because right now the set-up is so limited, being split across two locations in the library. And there is a quite large collection of artifacts concerning Western North Carolina, most of which are not on display. There are also thousands of print items, some of which are available for viewing on their website.
All original images are copyright of the North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library.