The Life and Times of Caleb Agnew



The family portrait above, taken in 1901, captured Caleb Agnew during what must have been the happiest and most serene period of his life. Here we find him at the peak of both his professional success, as a photographer, and of his personal success, as a husband, father, and self-made man. He was a big fish in the small, but thriving railroad town of Creston, Iowa and spent the next 16 years building his business and spreading his reputation as an artist all over the south central part of the state.

Those were heady days for Creston, and the railroad towns just like it that had been springing up along the lines of the major carriers. Those were heady days for farmers too, and Creston was every bit as much of a farm town as a railroad town. All kinds of folks all over the Midwest suddenly found themselves with leisure time and some money in their pockets. And lots of them decided they'd like to spend it getting a nice family portrait done. (Just like the one above.) Portrait photography back then was still equated with wealth and status in the public mind, much as portrait painting had been for previous generations. So folks were willing to pay good coin to have their portraits done up fancy, by a professional photographer, in a studio.

This was the heyday of photography in Creston, as elsewhere, and even the smallest towns, towns of only a few hundred people, might have it's own studio, along with a livery stable, barber shop, saloon, dry goods store, and bank. Creston, a town of 8,000, actually supported ___________ studios between _______ and _______ (Link) and there must've been some intense competition between them. A young man in those days could've done a lot worse for himself than to take up the trade of photography and for my money, Caleb was the best out of all of them. That's no mean accomplishment either because I've seen prints done by the other studios as well. (See Other Studios link.) And they're not half bad.

Unfortunately, these high times didn't last --for anybody. In 1918 while the rest of the world was being shaken to its core by the twin calamities of World War I and the Spanish Flu epidemic, Caleb Agnew was being shaken to his core too, by the calamities of divorce and business failure. Just a year before Caleb sold his successful photography business and moved from Creston, Iowa to Los Angeles. From there he seems to have simply faded into history. He spent the remaining 36 years of his life in poverty and obscurity, apparently friendless, probably depressed, possibly addicted to alcohol....Shunned by most of his remaining family, visited only by the occasional welfare worker. I know that he returned to Creston at least once, after his granddaughter Phyllis (my mother) was born because I have a picture from that visit. After my mother grew up and married she and my father visited Caleb once in the late 1940's, at his boarding house in Los Angeles but I'm told it wasn't a very cheering sight for them to find him in that condition. In any case, Caleb died just a few years later and was buried somewhere in Los Angeles at the State's expense.

[Sigh] When I think about what happened to Caleb in the years after this photo was taken I almost wish that time could have stood still for him from the moment that family portrait was taken.

Early History

All the folks who knew Caleb in his lifetime are now gone and as time passes the few scraps of oral history I can gather are becoming increasingly blurry. Fortunately I do have a few documents which give me some useful background on Caleb. One is a "History of Union County, Iowa -- From Historic Times to 1908", written by George A. Ide and published in Chicago in 1908. The book is kind of a "Who's Who" of Creston and its Union County sister towns and was largely put together, I believe, by soliciting material directly from Creston's leading citizens of the era. Judging by the generally glowing tone of the biographies I suspect the people mentioned in the book may have paid for the privelege, but don't have any evidence of that. In any case, below is an excerpt from the page bearing Caleb's biography, which I include in its entirety:



     Caleb D. Agnew, a prominent photographer of Creston, has attained a degree of skill and proficiency in his chosen calling that has secured for him a gratifying and well merited patronage. He was born in Licking county, Ohio, in 1871. His father, Samuel Agnew, was a native of the Buckeye state and was of Scotch-Irish ancestry. He devoted his life to farming and in 1876 removed from Ohio to Illinois, and a ear later became a resident of Spaulding, Iowa. In 1886 he removed to Creston and is now living in Des Moines, at the age of sixty-four years. He enlisted for service in the Civil War but was never called out for active duty. His political views have been in accord with the principles of the republican party since he attained his majority. His wife, who bore the maiden name of Almira DeMuth, was born in Ohio, and is now living in Creston, at the age of sixty-two years. She is of German descent and a sister of Mr. DeMuth, a prominent shoe merchant in Chicago. She belongs to the United Persbyterian church and the many good qualities which she has displayed in her life have gained for her warm esteem. In the family were three sons, the brothers of our subject being: Frank, a clothing merchant of Creston; and Joseph, a music dealer of Des Moines.

     Caleb D. Agnew, the youngest, attended the country schools and afterward continued his education in the public schools of Creston. On putting aside his text-books he entered the photographic gallery of S.C. Burgess, in St. Joseph, Missouri, and after having thoroughly mastered the art in principal and detail, gaining comprehensive knowledge of all the photographic work connected therewith, he established a studio in Creston in 1897 and is now the leading photographer of the city. He has a well equipped gallery, supplied with all modern appliances for carrying on the work and he has kept in touch with the latest improved methods in the photographic art.

     In 1893 Mr. Agnew was married to Miss Daisy Vickers, who was born in Afton, Iowa, in 1875, a daughter of Nathan and Sarah Vickers. Her father was in early life a cabinet maker and afterward became a carpenter and contractor. In search of gold he went to Pike's Peak, making the journey across the country with an ox-team. He is now living in Creston. Unto Mr. and Mrs. Agnew have been born three children, of whom the eldest is deceased, the others being Mervyn and John.

     Mr. Agnew is a Master Mason, thoroughly in sympathy with the teachings and tenets of the craft. His political allegiance is given to the republican party and he is always loyal to its interests but has never sought nor desired public office. He belongs to the Photographer's Association of Iowa and does all in his power to promote the interests of the art, while his advancement in the profession has given him prestige as a leading photographer of this part of the state.


So what we learn from this document is that.............


The other major document I have is a memoir done by Caleb's daughter Mervyn in 1992, a few years before her death. Although Mervyn put the memoir together rather late in her life, when her own memory may have been failing, the recollections of Caleb seem to be fairly solid, and generally gibe with other documents that I've come across. The whole memoir is available from this website under the miscellany section, but I'll include a few excerpts from that here...



At the Creston Country Club

This photo was sent to me by Steve Francis (see the Francis Family Gallery). Caleb and family are out for lark at the Creston Country Club, located on the shore of Creston's Summit Lake. Caleb's wife Daisy is on the left. Seated next to her is John. In the prow are Mervyn and the family's dog, Bubbles.

Probable date for this photo would've been around 1909-1910.