BY B. BYRON PRICE
Among the many outstanding photographs of cowboy and ranch life in Santa Fe’s Palace of the Governors Photo Archives are just over two dozen images taken in and around Deming, New Mexico, in the early 1890s by amateur photographer Ella K. Wormser. Produced from 5-by-7-inch glass-plate negatives, exposed in a tripod-mounted camera, these remarkable pictures not only reflect the photographer’s documentary instincts and sense of the picturesque, but they also are among the earliest to record the process of gathering, driving, and shipping herds of western range cattle to market. Several of the images also offer a glimpse into the thriving late-nineteenth-century transborder cattle trade between the United States and Mexico.
With the introduction of the Kodak camera in 1888, thousands of amateur photographers took to the field to capture their own visions of the world around them. The new cameras spread rapidly, reaching every corner of the nation, including New Mexico, where newspapers first reported their availability and use in 1891.
Loaded with a dry photographic plate or flexible film, the simple-to-operate apparatus removed most of the technological barriers that had once limited the photographer’s art to skilled professionals. Kodaks must have been especially appreciated in small communities such as Deming, whose 1,500 residents apparently did not generate enough business to support a long-term, full-time photographer during the 1890s.
Deming’s first resident picture taker, C. W. Frampton, established a studio at the corner of Spruce and Iron Streets in 1890, nine years after the town’s founding. According to the Deming Headlight, Frampton was “fully equipped for all kinds of work, portraits, out door views, or instantaneous views of life in motion. He evidently understands his business, and has all ready done some first-class work.” High hopes and technical virtuosity notwithstanding, his tenure in town lasted barely a year.
With Frampton’s departure, Deming residents waited another year before N. W. Chase, a sometime Methodist minister from Las Cruces, tried his hand at the photography trade. The new arrival apparently recognized the risk involved and hedged his bet by acquiring part interest in a local grocery. He soon discovered that peddling provisions was more profitable than taking pictures. Before the end of the decade, photo studios established by the Deming Art Company and a Mrs. Bryant had come and gone as well.
While professional photographers floundered in Deming in the 1890s, neophyte picture makers apparently abounded. On June 3, 1893, the town’s newspaper reported, “Amatuer [sic] photography is all the rage in Deming at this writing.” The anonymous shutterbugs to which the Deming Headlight referred undoubtedly included Ella Wormser, who had taken up the pastime after arriving in town as a young bride in 1888.
The eldest of twelve children, Ella Wormser was born Elvira Klauber, in Carson City, Nevada, in 1863. Her father, Abraham, a Bohemian Jew and enterprising merchant, had immigrated to the United States in 1850 and had subsequently established a string of successful general stores in California and Nevada. In 1860 he married Austrian-born Theresa Epstein in Sacramento. The couple began a family and lived in Carson City, Nevada, until 1869, when they moved to San Diego, California, where another business opportunity awaited. After establishing a wholesale grocery business in partnership with Samuel Steiner, Abraham Klauber relocated his brood to San Francisco in 1870, where he served as a purchasing agent for the new enterprise.
The Klauber children attended public schools in San Francisco. Ella and her younger sisters, Laura, Alice, and Leda, all showed an aptitude for art and were afforded private instruction. While still in high school, Ella won an award for drawing at the Mechanic’s Fair in San Francisco in 1878, and after graduation she continued her studies at the California School of Design under artist Virgil Williams (1830–1886) and at the Art Students League of San Francisco. Family members later recalled Ella’s “brilliant intellect” and wide-ranging interests, which extended to music, literature, drama, and philosophy, as well as art.
On October 17, 1888, Ella Klauber wed Gustav Wormser, a prosperous New Mexico merchant of German heritage. Three years before, the groom; his cousin, Isaac Wormser of San Francisco; and New Mexico businessman Sigmund Lindauer had opened Lindauer, Wormser & Co., a general store, in the fledgling community of Deming. The enterprise soon became the largest mercantile in Grant County, supplying their customers with everything from bulk provisions and agricultural machinery to dress patterns. When Lindauer withdrew from the firm in 1891, the company continued to operate profitably under the name G. Wormser & Co.
In addition to running a successful outfitting business, Gus Wormser and his partners invested heavily in real estate, banks, mines, and railroads, and promoted colonization efforts on both sides of the international boundary with Mexico. As forwarding agents, Lindauer, Wormser & Co. and its successor depended upon Deming’s superb transcontinental and midwestern railroad connections to deliver livestock and agricultural produce to market and ore from surrounding mines to distant smelters.
When prices were favorable, Wormser and his partners also speculated in cattle, and in 1886 they landed a lucrative contract to supply beef to the Apache reservation at San Carlos, Arizona. Several years later, Wormser joined with other local investors to form the Deming Cattle Pen Company, whose objectives included “buying and selling livestock, establishing convenient places for watering herds of cattle in transit and erection of pens and yards.”
In contrast to her husband’s well-documented career, the historical record offers only scant details about Ella Wormser’s eight years in New Mexico. The Wormsers and their three small children, Elsie, Paul, and Dorothy, born in Deming between 1891 and 1894, lived comfortably in a spacious two-story Victorian home, surrounded by a white picket fence, shade trees, and a wraparound porch. A surviving photograph of the house, perhaps taken by Ella herself, also reveals a windmill and storage tank atop an impressive enclosed tower.
While living in New Mexico, Ella and her children made several extended trips to San Francisco to visit friends and family, often during the winter months. The Wormsers also welcomed their West Coast relations on occasion, and in the fall of 1893 entertained an amateur archaeologist from Germany while he explored nearby Native American ruins associated with the ancient Mimbres culture.
According to a grandson, Lawrence K. Wormser, Ella Wormser developed an intense interest in New Mexico history and a passion for photography while living in Deming. Although she is said to have taken and developed hundreds of glass plates during these years, little is known of this work.
It is not surprising, however, that from time to time Wormser trained her camera on the cowboys and cattle that descended on Deming from all directions each year at shipping time. With direct railroad connections to distant markets and finishing ranges, the town had became one of the largest livestock shipping points in the Southwest in the 1880s, attracting herds from as far away as eastern Arizona and northern Mexico.
During the late nineteenth century, large shipments of stock cattle left Deming by rail between April and June each year, bound for the nutritious grasslands of the Northern Plains, where they were finished for slaughter. In the fall, ranchers continued to supply the stocker market while also forwarding mature beef steers to midwestern slaughterhouses. With departures averaging four thousand head or more a week, Deming and the surrounding area bustled with activity during the peak months of the trade.
Ella Wormser’s few surviving snapshots of Deming’s heyday as a cowtown in the early 1890s are of more than passing interest to students of range photography and New Mexico’s cattle trade. Taken as the trail-driving era was coming to an end and before barbed wire enclosed the vast ranges of southern New Mexico, they are, in terms of subject matter, some of the earliest images of their kind.
Although only a few of Wormser’s photographs bear specific dates or identify the individuals, outfits, and scenes they portray, several of her images seem to document the activities of a single trail herd from northern Mexico as it approached Deming, probably in the fall of 1895. The drive is identified as belonging to Jack Follansbee, a friend and business associate of American newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. During the 1890s and early 1900s, Follansbee owned 100,000 acres of ranchland in the state of Chihuahua in partnership with Hearst and managed the adjacent Babicora Ranch of 670,000 acres for the Hearst family.
Images in the Follansbee series include a number of camp scenes, the most interesting of which contains the prominent shadows of two women wearing long skirts and mutton-sleeve blouses. Ella Wormser, the figure on the left, attends a camera mounted on a tripod, one leg of which casts its own shadow just beyond her skirt.
Wormser snapped pictures of Follansbee’s herd both on the move and at rest and captured some of her best images at the stockyards where the cattle were penned, sorted, and readied for shipment. Nearby she snapped a line of empty cattle cars on a railroad siding, awaiting their cargo.
The photographer also took several horseback portraits of Follansbee’s trail crew after its herd had been delivered. Many of the horsemen in these shots wear the tall-crowned “sugar loaf” sombreros favored by Mexican vaqueros, and, in one, several proudly display their reatas (catch ropes) for the lady “shadow catcher.” Some of these drovers also had probably posed for artist Frederic Remington on his visit to the Babicora Ranch in 1893.
The death of Isaac Wormser in 1894 and the subsequent settlement of his estate prompted the closing of G. Wormser & Co. in May 1896, and before the year was out, the Wormser family moved back to San Francisco. Gus Wormser and two partners subsequently formed Sussman, Wormser & Co., a wholesale grocery business, which exists today as S&W Fine Foods.
After returning to the familiar environs of San Francisco, Ella Wormser seems to have enjoyed a more active (or at least a better-documented) social life than New Mexico Territory had offered. She participated in a variety of cultural activities, most of which revolved around art. By 1900, for example, she had exhibited oil paintings in shows sponsored by both the San Francisco Art Association and the Sketch Club of San Francisco and in the years that followed continued to show her work regularly at both venues. A critic of Wormser’s work in the 1902 Sketch Club exhibit called her studies of children “very pleasing.”
In 1906 the Wormser family endured the devastating earthquake and fire that destroyed much of San Francisco. Although her home and family were spared major damage, many of Ella’s cherished paintings succumbed to the flames.
When Ella Wormser died in 1932, eleven years after the passing of her husband, Gustav, she left behind an enviable record of creativity and service. In 1939 she was honored with a retrospective exhibition of her paintings at the Golden Gate International Exposition. So little is known of Wormser’s photography, however, that it is difficult to evaluate her aspirations for the medium or to gauge with any certainty what role it may have played in her life and art. And while the passage of time has nearly erased the memory of the people, places, and events recorded by Ella Wormser’s camera in New Mexico more than a century ago, a few precious fragments of the past endure yet on her fragile glass plates.
An abbreviated list of the books consulted for this article follows.
Art Student’s League. A California Greeting. San Francisco: William Doxey, 1886.
Edan M Hughes. Artists in California, 1786–1940. San Francisco: Hughes Publishing, 1989.
David F. Myrick. New Mexico’s Railroads: An Historical Survey. Revised edition, published by the author, 1990.
David Nasaw. The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst. New York: Mariner Books, 2001.
Reports of Cases Determined in the Supreme Court of the Territory of New Mexico from February 1, 1897 to August 30, 1899. Columbia, Missouri: E. W. Stephens, 1900.
San Francisco Blue Book: Season of 1904. San Francisco: Charles C. Hoag, 1904.
B. Byron Price currently holds the Charles Marion Russell Memorial Chair in art history at the University of Oklahoma. He is also the director of both the Charles M. Russell Center for the Study of Art of the American West and the University of Oklahoma Press.