Temperatures plunged to 26 below zero in Minnesota on Jan. 26, 1897, the day that Dorna Seewald was born in Waseca. That’s still the record low for that date.
A reader of this column, Timothy Minea of Mendota Heights, recently came across a photograph of Dorna, his grandmother, snapped soon after that frigid birthday nearly 122 years ago.
But it wasn’t so much the baby picture that attracted Minea’s eye as the photography studio that took it: Yates Sisters, Waseca, Minn.
“Women photographers in the 1890s?” Minea said. “Surely they must have been pioneers of a sort.”
Well, yes and no. The Yates sisters are among 232 women listed on the Minnesota Historical Society’s online directory of commercial photographers, studios and galleries. The directory is most complete for the years 1850 to 1920, when Lillian and Margaret Yates plied their trade in Waseca, Waterville and later Worthington. It lists nearly 1,700 photographers, with more than six times as many male photographers as female.
But thanks to researcher Linda Taylor at the Waseca County Historical Society, we know a bit more about the Yates sisters, Lillian and Margaret, who ran their photography business from 1886 to around 1908. From kids on tricycles to newlyweds, more than 200 of the Yates sisters’ portraits are online on the Waseca County Historical Society’s website, at tinyurl.com/YatesSisters.
“It was remarkable that these young ladies had a business that early in time in this county,” Taylor said. “They not only owned and operated one studio but opened another in Waterville. Only men had photography businesses in this county those years. I feel they were before their time.”
As for the women behind the camera, Taylor sifted through census records and newspaper ads to glean what she could about their lives.
The sisters were born in Wisconsin, Lillian about five years before Margaret. Their parents, New Yorkers Jerome and Desdemona Yates, moved in the early 1880s to Wasioja, Minn. By 1888, Lillian had moved 40 miles west to Waseca, where she eventually took over the town’s photo business from her boss, Hubert Manderfeld.
“Miss Yates who has worked for Mr. Manderfeld two years, will continue the business and expects to sustain the reputation which the gallery had while in Mr. Manderfeld’s hands,” the Waseca Radical reported.
Lillian renamed the business “Miss L. Yates Photography Gallery” and took both photographs and ferrotypes, a popular tintype that captured images on a thin sheet of metal. “Satisfaction guaranteed in cloudy as well as in clear weather,” her ad said.
Business was bright enough that Lillian added Margaret by late 1888, and the gallery was re-christened “Yates Sisters.” “The Misses Yates are doing excellent work at Manderfeld’s old gallery,” the newspaper proclaimed. “Call and inspect their work and prices.”
They sold their Waterville gallery by 1894, assuring customers that “we shall be able to fill our orders more promptly” with the shop in Waseca. But only a few years later they sold their Waseca studio and moved to Worthington, where Lillian promptly opened a new photo operation.
“Since coming here, [Lillian] has not only proven herself an artist in her line, but most accommodating,” the Worthington Advance reported. “She desires it stated that she does nothing but first class and up to date work.”
Lillian took photos in Worthington for 10 years, including a memorable family shot in 1908 that was “unique,” the Advance said, “in as much as it was a four-generation photo and the principals were relatives of the photographer. The picture is the more remarkable from the fact that all were male subjects and there is a difference of ninety years between the eldest and the youngest people.”
By 1910, Lillian had sold the business to her Worthington competitor, H.J. Blume, and the middle-aged sisters moved to Fall River County in the southwestern corner of South Dakota. Their photography days apparently were over; the 1910 U.S. census lists them both as farmers. Margaret also worked as a cook at the South Dakota State Soldiers’ Home, according to Taylor’s research.
Heart failure felled Margaret on May 24, 1913, and her body was taken to New Ulm for burial. Although records conflict, she was in her 40s.
Unlike Margaret, who never married, Lillian tied the knot — not once but twice. She married Robert Hewitt in South Dakota in 1914 and divorced him by 1920, when the census shows her living as a roomer in a family’s home and working as a hardware store saleswoman.
She married again in 1921, to a Frenchman named John Germiquet who owned a recreation parlor in Edgemont, S.D., south of the Black Hills.
Lillian died in 1941 and was buried in Edgemont’s cemetery — more than 500 miles from the sister who accompanied her most of her life.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His new book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: https://tinyurl.com/MN1918. Podcasts at www.onminnesotahistory.com.