Ever since I learned famous African American statesman Frederick Douglass had his picture taken at O. A. (Orlando Andrew) Harnish’s studio during his 1880 visit to Noblesville, I’ve wondered what happened to that photograph.

Lisa Hayner knew of my interest, so when she spoke recently with O. A.‘s granddaughter, Elizabeth “Betty Lou” (Harnish) Spencer, she asked about the photo. (Lisa’s mother, Jerry Snyder, was a good friend and classmate of Betty Lou.)

Unfortunately, although Betty Lou recalled seeing her grandfather’s old camera when she was growing up, she didn’t know what became of it, or of anything else from the studio. 

The question of the Douglass photo aroused Lisa’s curiosity, however, so she decided to search the old newspapers for information about Harnish himself.

She uncovered quite a bit.

Although Harnish wasn’t the first photographer to set up shop in Noblesville, he’s probably the best known. For nearly 40 years he not only captured images of the citizens of Hamilton County, but also their homes, schools and local landmarks.

Born in Pennsylvania in 1856, his family moved to Indiana a few years after the end of the Civil War. His older brother, George, operated a gallery in Bluffton and it was there O. A. learned the photography trade.

In June, 1879, Harnish and a man named Staver opened their own establishment in Noblesville, across from the I. P. & C. (Nickel Plate) railroad depot. Less than two months later, however, Staver was out of the picture. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

That was the first of several locations for Harnish’s “picture gallery.” The last was the building just north of the alley on the east side of the courthouse square.

In the early 1900s Harnish advertised “old and new styles of photos, and the very best of Crayons, Sepia and Water Colors.” Pictures went for 20 cents per dozen and “cabinets” for $3.00 to $5.00.

(Cabinet cards were photographic portraits mounted on cards large enough to include the photographer’s advertising. They were commonly displayed on cabinets, hence the name.)

Lisa ran across a couple of amusing stories involving Harnish.

The August 5, 1887 Hamilton County Democrat reported that “a pair of brutes impersonating human beings in the form of young men” had approached Harnish “with the cheek and minds of devils” to request Harnish photograph them in the nude.

“Their cloven feet had already betrayed their species and Mr. Harnish, with proper spirit, ejected the vulgar hounds..."

The paper happily pointed out the young degenerates weren’t from Hamilton County and expressed regret that Harnish hadn’t given them a few bruises or a broken limb when he sent them packing.

Another incident appeared in the June 16, 1905 Enterprise. Since it was part of a report from the Twilight Club, I don’t know if it really happened, or if our legs are being pulled, but it’s funny just the same.

According to the item, a country woman came to Harnish’s studio one day and asked if he was the man who made “picters.” When he said yes, she asked if he made “picters” of little children.

Again the answer was yes, and he told her the charge was three dollars a dozen.

“Oh, shucks,” said the disappointed woman, “Here I’ll have to wait till next year, for I’ve only got eleven.”

In 1917 Harnish retired from photography and went to work for the post office. He was employed there almost right up to his death in 1933.

I haven’t given up finding that photo of Frederick Douglass. Harnish advertised copies for sale for for 25 cents, so it’s possible one may still exist somewhere. Keep your eyes peeled.

Thanks to Lisa Hayner for her research.

- Paula Dunn’s From Time to Thyme column appears each Friday in The Times. Contact her at younggardenerfriend@gmail.com