William F. Sawtell (1843-1909)

The verso of a William F. Sawtell photograph. Author's collection.

The verso of a William F. Sawtell photograph. Author’s collection.

“In mentioning the business houses of Wellington, our list would not be complete without Sawtell, whose popularity as a first-class artist, is not confined to Wellington, or Ohio only, but in many other States of the Union. His pictures in all their different varieties, are acknowledged by all who have seen them, to excel those of many who make far greater pretensions than our modest photographer” (The Wellington Enterprise, 10-11-1877, pg. 3).

When I began this blog, one of the first posts I wrote was about the photography of William Sawtell. I promised then that I would relate the story of Sawtell’s life at some future date; it seems incredible that I have made more than forty posts since then. My apologies to those who have been waiting patiently for me to keep my promise.

Undated image of William F. Sawtell. Photo courtesy of the Southern Lorain County Historical Society, "The Spirit of '76" Museum.

Undated image of William F. Sawtell. Photo courtesy of the Southern Lorain County Historical Society, “The Spirit of ’76” Museum.

William F. Sawtell was a native Ohioan, born in Cleveland in 1843. His mother passed away when he was only seven; his father died two years later. The boy was sent to live with a family called Bostwick in Medina, where he remained until he enlisted in the Union Army at the outbreak of the Civil War.

Sawtell received a debilitating injury during the conflict, one that would trouble him for the rest of his life. While seeking shelter in the trenches during the battle of Vicksburg, he was struck by a large limb torn from a nearby tree by a cannonball. The men on either side of him were both killed by the limb; William was knocked unconscious and seems to have suffered damage to his spine, which caused him to require crutches to walk for years after the event. He was discharged “for disability” in April, 1863 and sent home to Medina to heal.

But he insisted on rejoining the fight. “He determined to re-enlist and went to Cincinnati and offered his services, but was again refused. Upon his declaration that he walk to the front if not accepted, he was finally accepted and enrolled as a private” in October, 1863 (The Wellington Enterprise, 4-28-1909, pg. 7). He served nearly two more years, until the end of the war.

In 1866, William moved to Wellington and opened a photography studio, probably on North Main Street. Two years later, he married Estella Le Hentz Rasor; they had one son, Edwin, born in 1870. The young family rented a house on Courtland Street before purchasing their own lots on the same street in 1884. I have found that it was not uncommon for a business to be listed in the corporation tax records as belonging to a man, while the family home was listed as belonging to his wife. That is the case with the Sawtells, and the 1885 volume records E. L. H. Sawtell, i.e. Estella Le Hentz Sawtell, as the owner and taxpayer on lots 4,84 and 4,85. The same entry shows the construction of a new house, valued at $1,505.

Detail of 1885 Wellington Corporation tax record for E. L. H. Sawtell. Note the insertion of "House $1,505."

Detail of 1885 Wellington Corporation tax record for E. L. H. Sawtell. Note the insertion of “House $1,505.”

Those lot numbers correspond to the present-day address of 309 Courtland Street, which still stands today. After I pieced this evidence together, I was reading a copy of Ernst Henes’ Historic Wellington Then and Now (1983) and found a short entry for “William F. Sawtelle” [sic] which concludes, “He is thought to have built the beautiful home at 309 Courtland St., now the residence of Carol Waldner” (pg. 78). The house and land remained in Estella Sawtell’s possession until they were sold to Charles T. Jamieson in 1909, the year both spouses died.

309 Courtland Street, Wellington, Ohio. Photo by author.

309 Courtland Street, Wellington, Ohio. Photo by author.

Around 1875, Sawtell relocated his studio to Mechanics Street (now East Herrick Avenue), on the second floor of the building also later occupied by grocers Bowlby & Hall. His services seem always to have been in high demand with town residents, and frequent notices were printed in the Enterprise similar to this one: “W. F. Sawtell wishes to inform the public that after Thursday (to-morrow) he can take no new negatives promising to have the pictures therefrom done for Christmas. The number of bright days in which printing can be done are so few, that he has sufficient work promised for all he can print by the 25th” (12-14-1881, pg. 3).

Local historian Robert Walden met William Sawtell as a young man; Walden’s aunt, Mary, was an employee of Sawtell’s photography gallery. He wrote several columns that mentioned Sawtell, chiefly in connection with painter Archibald Willard. “Archibald F. Willard, William F. Sawtelle [sic] and Edward F. Webster, all veterans of the Union armies, were life-long friends” (Robert Walden Notebook, #B16). Willard is said to have observed the 4th of July parade that inspired “The Spirit of ’76” from the window of Sawtell’s studio. I have even seen a publication state that Willard and Sawtell shared a studio, though I have yet to find any primary documents that support that assertion. There was at least one other retail space on the second floor of the building; I have found several announcements of various businesses operating in “the room in front of Sawtell’s Gallery” (The Wellington Enterprise, 9-13-1882, pg. 3).

Another employee of the studio was Charles Spicer. Charles’ father was a local blacksmith and his mother briefly ran a dressmaking shop in the other room of Sawtell’s floor. In addition to his photographic duties, Charles served as one of the models for “The Spirit of ’76.” (Sawtell made numerous photographic studies of people from Wellington, from which Willard created the painting.) Spicer seems to have apprenticed to Sawtell, and in 1876 announced in the Enterprise that he had purchased all “furniture and fixtures” associated with Sawtell’s old North Main Street gallery. He proposed to enter the business himself with “tin-types a specialty” (1-27-1876, pg. 3). I have never been able to discover the details of what happened to Charles, but he apparently left Wellington within a year of announcing his new business venture, “under a cloud somewhat larger than a man’s hand” (7-8-1880, pg. 3).

Young Edwin Sawtell was a promising newspaper reporter working for The Cleveland Leader when he died of tuberculosis in 1892, only twenty-two years old, a blow from which his father is said never to have fully recovered. Robert Walden recalled that after Edwin died, “His father’s mind became clouded and direction of the family affairs was turned over to their lifetime friend, Edward F. Webster. Mr. Sawtelle [sic] withdrew entirely within himself. Some evenings you might see him walking with his head bent low, recognizing and speaking to no one” (Notebook, #A134).

His old war injury had recurred and finally forced him to close up his studio for good in 1888. Sawtell also had mental health issues (a “nervous condition,” in the language of the time) even before the death of his son, and was committed in 1889 to the Newburgh State Hospital, an asylum in Cleveland. He lived there for at least a year before returning home to Wellington. In 1909 he had an attack of apoplexy while visiting friends. He lingered for several months in very poor condition, before suffering a fatal stroke in April. He was sixty-six years old. His widow, Estella, died of intestinal cancer just six months later. All three members of the family are buried together in a single plot in Wellington’s Greenwood Cemetery.

Sawtell family  headstones. Greenwood Cemetery, Wellington, Ohio. Photo by author.

Sawtell family headstones. Greenwood Cemetery, Wellington, Ohio. Photo by author.

UPDATE: Since publishing this post, I have found a great deal more information about the Sawtell family’s living situation in the 1880s. Apparently Mrs. Sawtell suffered from very ill health and it made her unable to “keep house.” A series of notices in the Enterprise chronicle the impact this had on the family. In September 1883, a Mr. and Mrs. Locke moved into the Sawtell household and the way the piece is written, it seems that Mrs. Locke is Mrs. Sawtell’s mother, perhaps remarried. In January of 1884, the Sawtells relocated to the American House hotel. The next month, Sawtell sold the family house and lot–apparently on Magyar Street–for $2,800. “He will build a handsome residence on Cortland [sic] Ave. between Dea. West’s and Prof. Kinnison’s. The Avenuites are happy to welcome him back again” (2-27-1884, pg. 5). Finally, in June, it was announced that building had commenced on the new Sawtell residence, while the family spent the summer living again with the Lockes. Sawtell must have been doing well financially at this period, because at the very same time that he was building a large house on Courtland Street, he completely refurbished and redecorated his studio on Mechanics Avenue. “A tapestry carpet, tinted walls, new furniture, lace draperies and rich hangings, elegant frames for display of his work and handsome paintings upon the walls, are some of the features of attractiveness he has added to his art gallery” (2-20-1884, pg. 5).


6 thoughts on “William F. Sawtell (1843-1909)

  1. Carol Waldner

    I purchased theSawtelle house in 1976 and spent years restoring it. I collected many photos he took during the war. Brad no idea of the historical value until I received notice that it had been listed on the Hisoricl Register in 1977. Great home. Great write up.

    1. Armchair Historian Post author

      Thank you very much for the comment! Are you still in the Wellington area? I would love to see your Sawtell pictures–I have a tiny little collection of my own that I love to share with folks. He was a truly talented photographer.

  2. Molly smith

    I have many pieces from sawtell, oil painting, glass wear, all signed. By him and also who they were gifted to, such as E.F. Webster, it is fun to read this.


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