The 1936 Mexican Snapshot Mystery

I love a mystery.  After I helped with an estate sale a few doors from where I live in Santa Paula I was given a box of old snapshots that were left over.  The daughter told me the snapshots were taken on a trip to Mexico in 1936 by her grandfather, Garfield Merner.  At that estate sale I also a obtained a book on the history of the Merner family and one book about that trip titled “Mexico – Notes in the Margin” by Bess Adams Garner.  Then I put them away for more than ten years.

In late 2015 I heard about the Getty’s new initiative called “LA/LA: A Celebration Beyond Borders”, a far-reaching and ambitious exploration of Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles.  That event will occur between September 2017 and January 2018 and there will be lots of exhibits exploring this subject matter.  I couldn’t wait that long so I  approached the Santa Paula Art Museum with the idea to exhibit some of the snapshots in that archive of photos of Mexico.  The answer was yes and the detective work began.

The research has taken over one year to assemble and there is much more to learn.  We found that the snapshot archive contained not only photos by Garfield Merner but also many by a photographer then only known as Kenneth Forbes.  Co-curator Eliza Graumlich tracked down Ken Forbes’ daughter, a 94 year old woman living in a rest home in Claremont.  That detective work led to finding his obituary and learning that he was a major citrus rancher in the Claremont area as well as a stage manager for the Padua Hills Playhouse and a photo-finish photographer at Santa Anita Racetrack.  Through diligent research, detective work, chance and good luck we are now able to exhibit the results of their and our labor.  Hopefully more and more facts will come to light about not only what Mexico and California were like in 1936 but also how our past shapes our present and informs our future.

John Nichols

For more information visit the Santa Paula Art Museum:

f005Photo by Kenneth Forbes


f013Photo by Kenneth Forbes

f028Photo by Kenneth Forbes

f045Photo by Kenneth Forbes

f058Photo by Kenneth Forbes


Photo by Garfield Merner


Photo by R. E. G.


Photo by Garfield Merner


Photo by Garfield Merner


Photo by Garfield Merner


Photo by Garfield Merner

Posted in Museums, Photography, Vernacular Photography | 1 Comment

M is for Mountain Lion


Now let me tell you about Herman Keene.  He was a lion hunter.  When his son was asked by his 6th grade teacher what his father did for a living he said, “He’s a lion hunter”.  The class laughed.

I got a call from a woman who had old Arizona Highway magazines for sale.  I’ve learned not to turn down an opportunity to enter a home on any pretense.  Arizona Highways are a good portal.  I visited the home on 6th St.  I passed on the Arizona Highways but did express an interest in old photographs.  She had a pile of them that filled the kitchen table.  I purchased them all.

I had obtained an archive of Herman Keene.  During his life he did a lot of things but for a big piece of it he was a bounty hunter.  He ran traps in the Sespe.  Once he caught something, like a mountain lion, he shot it and claimed the bounty.  Sometimes he used a bow and arrow.  Sometimes he posed with a dead stuffed animal with himself acting out the final battle between man and beast.

He had a lot of the animals stuffed.  They ended up all over Santa Paula.  A lot of them hung at the Mill in its hay day.  (Get it?)  I have a real photo postcard of a restaurant with his mounts literally covering the walls above the booths.

This snapshot shows Herman in his car in front of the Glen Tavern in Santa Paula.

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High Above Santa Paula with the Oddfellows

I had been looking longingly at the scaffolding on the Oddfellow’s Clock Tower for  what seemed like months.  What was going on up there?  I mentioned to Paul Skeels and Carlos Juarez that I would love to climb up on that scaffolding and take some portraits of the Oddfellows at work.  On a recent Thursday morning I was on my morning walk when my cell phone rang.  It was too early in the morning for telemarketers so I answered it.  Carlos was calling to invite me to climb up with his fellow Oddfellows as they put the finishing touches on the restoration.  That day would be my only chance as the scaffolding was to be removed pretty darn soon.

“Bill Behind the Drill”

“Paul and Wes”

I quickened my strides home to shave and shower and put on my hiking boots.  Then I loaded up my backpack at the gallery with the camera and lenses I might need and tried not to knock pedestrians down as I took my longest strides down Main St. to the IOOF Hall.  I could see the boys up on the scaffolding so I called Carlos on his cell phone.  He instructed me to go up the stairs, into the meeting hall, turn right, go up the stairs, find the small door and half crawl half climb up through the hatch opening onto the roof.  There I was at the base of the scaffolding on the silver roof.  A narrow ladder led me up to the thick boards forming the platform of the first level.

“Touch Up Painting on the Clock Tower”

I handed my backpack up to Paul and felt like a volunteer fireman as I climbed higher and squirmed through the narrow opening onto the boards.  The planks had a little spring to them as I walked that made me feel like my weight was going to crack the stout planks and I’d fall to the pavement below.  I soon got used to the plank walking like a sailor gets used to the rolling seas.  In one hand I held the camera and with the other gripped the scaffolding where and when I could.

“Linked Rings”

“Very Secret Symbol”

“The Hands of the Clock”

“Paul Inspecting the Hands of the North Face”

I’m used to working on 20 foot rolling scaffolding at the Monterey Jazz Festival.  The IOOF scaffolding was literally a step up from that experience.  I quickly developed a few rules.  Always know where you are placing your next step.  Always know where the closest cross bar is to grab in case of a misstep.  Don’t move around while looking in to the viewfinder of the camera.  Plant your feet and take the photo, then carefully move to the next location for the next photo.  A wide angle lens helps because there is not much room to move back for a shot.  I also could not ask the subject to move back.

“Rabalais’ In the Shadow of the Clock Tower”

“Bikes at Rabalais’ Bistro”

“My Favorite Bank”

“What Time Is It?”

As I climbed back down the scaffolding and reached the silver roof on the south side of the clock tower the Oddfellows asked me to take a shot of all of them standing on the scaffolding with the south clock face in the middle of the group.

“Carlos Juarez”


After that shot Paul Skeels climbed down and had a few minutes to show me the bell and the huge iron clapper.

We then stooped and went into the low door below the south face and into the little room with the clock works.  The original clock works were powered by the pull of gravity like a huge tall case clock.  A relatively small electric motor now powers the mechanism.

“The Works”

Gears and shafts turn and the rotation is transferred up a central shaft and then out in four different directions to turn the hands on each face of the clock.  It looks a little like the differential on an old car only there are four of them.

From the inside of the clock tower there is a soft glow of light as the sun shines through the translucent clock face and the numerals all appear backwards.

By the time the Oddfellows next need to set up scaffolding I’ll be too old to climb it.  I had a unique opportunity to climb up with the Oddfellows and take some photos from a seldom seen vantage point.

Posted in Portrait, Santa Paula Activities, Santa Paula Portrait Project, Uncategorized, Writings | Tagged , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

The Christian Eby Tall Case Clock Tale

All day and all night the tall case clock in the corner of the living room in Santa Paula, Calif. ticks.  The pendulum swings and the two weights move slowly down at the end of their chains.  The hands move clockwise, naturally.  The days of the month also move but the effort to keep that dial in sync with the changing length of each month is beyond the ability of the contemporary humans who live with the clock.

Each morning I awake and walk downstairs to breakfast and the newspapers.  When I hit the ground floor the first thing I do is go to the clock and open the long door and carefully pull down on first the left weight until it hits the wood at the bottom of the case and then the right weight.  I’m careful not to go to0 far or to disturb the pendulum in any way.  The swing of the pendulum is slightly wider than the case of the clock so there is a slot carved into the right and left side of the case in the shape of the pendulum.  It is about one inch deep.  I assume a lot of things about this clock and I assume the hole was carved at the time the clock was made.  The color of the patina on the wood is the same both inside and outside the pendulum slot.

I do this job first thing each morning, before I go outside and get the newspapers and before I make the coffee.  If I occasionally forget to wind  the clock I have to pay a price with an additional task.  If the clock winds down and stops then I have to wind it by pulling the weights down and then turning the hands slowly and stopping at each hour to let the chimes sound.  Waiting for 12 chimes takes the longest.  Once I have arrived at the correct wristwatch time I then pull the weights down again to the daily starting position.

I marvel at the frugality of my ancestors who originally purchased this clock.  They selected a 24 hour clock.  I assume it was cheaper than an 8 day clock.  The extra labor to wind the clock daily was worth the money saved.  But when you multiply the time it takes to wind the clock by 365 times each year for over 200 years I’m beginning to wonder.  I wonder about a lot of other things too, as I wind the clock each morning.  How has it kept running all these years?  How is it that no one ever decided to refinish the case or repaint the face?  How did it stay in one family so long?

I am the temporary custodian of this clock because my family believed in the concept of male primogeniture. Primogeniture is the right, by law or custom, of the first-born to inherit the entire estate, to the exclusion of younger siblings. Historically, the term implied male primogeniture, to the exclusion of females.  The rest of the historic Nichols estate from each generation must have been dribbled away over the centuries but the clock remained.  That’s one of the great things about clocks.

My father had two brothers and a sister.  One brother was older and one younger.  Those brothers both had daughters.  My father had two sons.  I am the elder.  When my father’s uncle Sam died it became time to pass down the clock.  Uncle Sam and Aunt Jeanette did not have children.   At Sam’s death the clock went to his nephew, John Nichols, Sr.  John, Sr. was not the oldest male in the line of Nichols but he was the one who bore the only sons.

After Uncle Sam and Aunt Jeanette’s estate in Vista, California was dispersed my dad and mom were called to come in and claim the last object in the house after the estate was divided by sale or gift.  That object was the Eby clock.  The clock went to the home of John and Ida May Nichols, Sr. in Ventura, California and lived there for a while.  When John and Leslie Nichols, Jr. purchased a home of their own it was decided that the clock should move to their new home.  They were going to get it some day anyway.  It has been in their Santa Paula home for over 30 years.

John and Leslie have no children, male or female.  John’s brother, Jim Nichols and his wife Sharon had one son, Tann.  Tann and his wife Nicole have two sons.  The clock will go to Tann at or before the death of John Nichols, Jr.  Tann can keep it for as long as he lives or wants to.  It is assumed that the clock will eventually go to the elder son of Tann and Nicole at or before their death. I could decide not to wait until my death to pass the clock along but what’s the rush?  I’m still enjoying the clock and using it daily.

Paul Skeels, local clock repair man, lawyer and friend came over to take a closer look at the clock one afternoon.  We soon had it apart and the pieces spread out on the carpet of the living room.

Here Paul holds the works as seen from the rear with the back of the face and the replacement seatboard.  I assume the clock was repaired at one time and this more modern seatboard was  installed.  My mother might know.

This is a side view of the works.

Below is a view from above. 

Works from an angle.  Notice that the arm projecting holds the top of the pendulum.  The swinging pendulum moves the  other projecting piece to advance the gears.  I’ll leave it to the clock experts to come up with the correct names for all these pieces.


Close up of the face with name of maker.  For a long time I thought the clock was made in Manheim, Germany.  I later learned that it was made in Pennsylvania.

Face with bird and flowers.  Note the original hands and the smaller dial showing days of the week.

Detail of the face showing crackling of the paint in certain areas.

After removing the weights and the pendulum the housing for the works and face on the seatboard slides off of the tall case.  I have shimmed the clock with matboard on the left.  Notice the open door showing the original finish that has been covered by the closed door and the patina and aging on the rest of the clock.  We are very lucky that this clock have never been desecrated by refinishing.

This is the face of the pendulum on the carpet.  Paul Skeels was at dinner one evening recently and noticed that the clock was almost 10 minutes slow.  He told me that I could adjust the clock.  Which way I asked?  Well, turn the screw at the bottom of the pendulum to raise it and it will go faster and speed up.  I adjusted it and now it keeps relatively perfect time.

This all seems obvious in retrospect.

The back of the pendulum shows how the brass face was filled with lead.  Another assumption.

The pendulum, the weights and what I would call the counterweights and the chain on the carpet.  The hooks at the top of the large weights have a sharp point.

This is somewhere on the clock but I can’t remember where.  Might be on the back of the face.

I did not notice this label even as Paul and I were taking the clock apart to inspect it.  Samuel Z. Nichols.  The Z. stands for Zug, an old family name.  Nicole Kuzman-Nichols is exploring geneology and will know.   It is flow ink on what look like old hospital tape.

The current, temporary custodian of the clock, John Richard Nichols, Jr.

My height is 6’ 1.5”.  I have attached it to the wall with one heavy screw through the back of the case.

That almost seems like it would be the end of the story of the clock.  A few months after Paul and I had taken the clock apart and examined it I poked around some more.  I opened the door and looked down into the bottom of the case.  It was dark and I did not see anything.  I reached in and felt around.  I came up with a piece of old wood.  After my short education from Paul I knew immediately that I had found the original seatboard that had been replaced by the newer one.  Isn’t it obvious now?

The seatboard had two labels attached to it at different times.  One on top of the other.  The top label was in two pieces and the loose piece was found at the bottom of the case.

Top is a closeup of the label as found with one piece missing and later found at the bottom of the case.
Bottom is with the Jessop piece glued back in place.

This “Jessop” label was glued on top of the “Roehm and Son” upsidedown.  Here’s what I found out about the newer of the two labels.

The sticker on top was a hand written label.  It reads J. Jessop & Sons.  The date is 1916 with a number also of 7554.  I assume that is a job number for a repair to the clock done in 1916.  An internet search revealed information on the history of that company.

History of the Jessop firm from a newspaper mention.

Jessop’s has been the trusted source of diamonds and fine jewelry in San Diego since 1892 when Joseph Jessop, great-grandfather of today’s owner, Jim Jessop, opened J. Jessop and Sons. Generations of our family have been an integral part of the San Diego community. And five generations of Jessops have followed in each other’s footsteps, carrying on a jewelry tradition that is unique in San Diego. We are proud to be known as the best source of fine jewelry and diamonds in San Diego.

Jessop Jewelers has made many changes over the years to better serve their clients. George Carter Jessop, a long time owner of Jessop’s, used his name as the firm name for many years. Through all these changes the philosophy of Jessop’s has remained the same. We back our quality, our value, and most of all our integrity, with five generations of trusted jewelers and with an exceptional team of jewelry and diamond experts.

A lot of the Nichols family lived in San Diego at that time.  It may be possible to make an educated guess as to who the owner of the clock was at this time.  It would have been an owner before it was passed on to my dad’s uncle Sam.

The sticker under the “Jessop” label revealed more information.

ROEHM & SON (Manufacturing Jewelers, Detroit, MI, USA)

This company is listed in a newspaper c. 1899

This sticker indicates that the clock might have been serviced in Detroit in the 1890s.  Which branch of the Nichols were living in Detroit at that time?  When did the clock move to San Diego?  The stickers give us a lead but no sure answers.

Just when you thought you had all the information about this clock that your brain could hold…alongs comes more.

My mother, Ida May Nichols told me that she was given this snapshot by a distant relative.  This story needs to be confirmed.  Who wants to do that job?


On the back of the snapshot was written this:

Does this mean that the clock once lived and ticked in this very house?  Who was the owner at the time?

Now you know as much as I do.

     On a side note…my mom and dad decided to visit this historic Nichols residence on one of their vacations.  They brought along this snapshot to guide them.  They had the name of  the town to visit and they drove around looking for the house.

The house on the right is what they found.  Compare this 1970 snapshot with the earlier snapshot on the left.  The houses do not look anything like each other.

On the left is the caption my mom typed on the back of the snapshot they took on their vacation.  It is a snapshot of what they thought was the the old Nichols place.

The lesson is:  “Don’t trust anybody when it comes to history.”

That’s about all I know about the facts of this case.  I could wax on about the aesthetics of the design of this clock.  I think I would be qualified but I’ll stop now.

What follows is some of what I have been able to learn about what a clock like this must be worth in useless dollars.

Sotheby’s Americana Week 2009

23 & 24 JANUARY 2009

An Important Chippendale Carved Cherrywood Tall Case Clock, with works by

Christian Eby, Manheim, Pennsylvania, circa 1800 (est. $150/300,000) will also

be featured in the Saturday afternoon session of Important Americana. The clock is one of the most elaborate tall-case

clocks from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and has survived in a remarkable state of preservation; it retains its original

finials, rosettes, tympanum carving, ogee feet and an old surface.


this site shows photos very similar but prices by subscription





Price Realized

(Set Currency)

* $14,950

* Price includes buyer’s premium


$10,000 – $15,000

* Get a shipping estimate

Sale Information

Sale 8494

Important American Furniture, Folk Art and Decorative Arts

18 October 1996

New York, Park Avenue

Lot Description


dial signed christian eby, manheim, lancaster, pennsylvania, circa 1795

The arched molded pediment above an astragal-shaped glazed door flanked by columns enclosing a conforming painted dial centering Arabic and Roman numeral chapter rings enclosing a sweep seconds ring and centering below the name “Christian Eby/Manheim,” above a flaring molded cornice over a waisted case centering a shaped and molded door flanked by fluted quarter columns above a flaring cove molding over a conforming box base with inset rectangular panel flanked by fluted quarter-columns, on ogee bracket feet

92ºin. high, 22æin. wide, 11æin. deep

Lot Notes

Christian Eby (w.1793-1803) was the older brother of Jacob Eby (lot 153).

Few tall-case clocks signed by Christian Eby are documented. A tall case clock signed Christian Eby sold in These Rooms January 17-18, 1992, lot 463 and another was sold at Sotheby’s New York 28-31, 1994, lot 1095.


Sotheby 1/09 Folk Art Chinese Export antique Furniture


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As Above So Below

Today, August 7, 2011 I gave a talk at the Universalist Unitarian Church of Santa Paula.  The title was iPhone Theology.  The real topic was how to use low and high technology to understand ordinary reality and transcend it.     I showed some of my photos to demonstrate the use of symbols and metaphors to better understand the messages we are receiving all the time.  I did not write down or record my talk.  After the talk I was reminded of an essay I wrote for the local paper more than 10 years ago.  I was writing a column every two weeks.  I could write on anything I wanted.  Here is one sample.  It ties in to what I was talking about in church this morning.

Chapter 57

As Above So Below


            Hermes Trismegistus is my new main man. He is one heavy dude. I’m really surprised that his name is not a household word. It is around my household. My next cat is going to be named after him. In the morning I will open the door and yell, “Here Trismegistus. Here Trismegistus.” He will come running for that can of mackerel.

Who is Hermes Trismegistus? Why, he is the father of alchemy. Where would we be without alchemy? Our world would be a lesser place without the contributions of Hermes. I do hope that it will show no disrespect to call him by his first name. I feel as if I know him personally, even though he has been dead for centuries.

I first studied alchemy during a college course in medieval history. That’s the middle ages. Whose middle ages I don’t know. Someday students will be studying our time period and perhaps calling it the middle ages. I did my paper on alchemy and learned a lot of neat stuff. i didn’t get a very good grade on it but it is one of the few papers that I did that has had any lasting impact on me. I don’t remember now but i am sure that Hermes was mentioned.

High school chemistry taught me that alchemy was an early form of chemistry. A bunch of foolish men during a time when nobody had any brains thought they could turn lead into gold. How stupid can you get. After endless experimentation they discovered the principles of modern chemistry, almost by accident, as an afterthought. What were these people thinking of?

Schools plant seeds. They teach a little but mostly they plant seeds. The high school chemistry class and the college history class planted seeds about alchemy. I had to water the seeds and tend the soil around them myself. Great concepts like alchemy can only be grown from seed. They can’t be transmitted from one head to another in a public school setting. I don’t think that there has been a single time in all the years that I went to school that a teacher tried to teach about things like alchemy and about the existence of a hidden reality that constitutes the underlying essence of all truths and all religions.

Maybe it isn’t a seed that was planted way back when I first heard about alchemy. Maybe it was more like a beneficial virus that I was exposed to that showed up in my life after a couple of decades. It showed up one day when I was searching around for just the right title for a photograph I had just printed. I hung the photograph on the wall and thought about it for several days and tried out several titles that didn’t stick. Finally one came to me and it was just right. Just like Goldilocks’ bed. I titled the photo “As Above So Below”.

I showed this new photo to a visitor in the gallery and told her that the title was the essence of hermetic wisdom. She acknowledged that she didn’t rightly know what hermetic wisdom was. It was at that point that I decided that I had better be able to explain a little of the ol’ crapola that I was slinging around.

Hermes gave his name to the hermetic philosophy. That’s alchemy. Today hermetic means completely sealed, especially against the escape or entry of air. That’s good to know when you buy food. In alchemy the hermetic vessel is a glass container within which a transformation occurs.

Now here’s the trick. Hermes Trismegistus and a lot of other alchemists right down to modern times talked about one thing but really meant another. What they talked about was the transmutation of base metals into gold. What they really meant was that consciousness can be radically altered and transmuted from the ordinary, lead-like level of everyday perception to a subtle, gold-like level of perception. Alchemy is a rainbow arching from the earthly to the heavenly plane, between matter and spirit. Like the rainbow, it may appear within reach, only to recede if it is chased by an unworthy person who only wants the pot of gold.

I imagine that it must have been very threatening to the ruling powers in the middle ages to be faced with a philosophy such as alchemy. It was threatening because alchemy presented a method for self transformation. If base, lead-like humans could, using the spiritual and symbolic tools of alchemy, transform themselves as a means of achieving oneness with the world, then what need would there be for organized religion and politics? This is what the medieval alchemists must have been saying to themselves. Their ideas were obviously a threat to the status quo. A threat to those who maintained control over the individual by dispensing knowledge and salvation.

The alchemists were not dumb. They knew they would be in big trouble if the authorities ever found out what they were really teaching. What they did to protect themselves from being burned at the stake was to encode their messages in symbols and stories. The symbols and stories led most people to think that the purpose of alchemy was to turn base metals into gold. The alchemists succeeded in hiding their knowledge from the crass masses who were only interested in gold. For those who were interested in spiritual transformation the message was there, in powerful symbolic form.

The alchemists learned to create within a sealed vessel a model of the universe and of human consciousness. The hermetic vessel is our consciousness. Within that vessel opposing complementary forces, symbolized by male and female, sulphur and mercury, earth and air, fire and water, attain the perfect synthesis, of which gold is the emblem.

By this time you are probably saying to yourself, “This defies linear logic!” I hope you are saying that, because that is the point of presenting these concepts in that way. The limitations of the mind must be transcended to achieve recognition of reality. Recognition of reality seems simple enough but when it is really achieved enlightenment results. Or so I’ve been told. Most of the time I’m stuck in this body getting flabbier by the minute. I really must start exercising and eating properly.

The photograph with the new title was hanging on the wall for just a couple of days before a poet from Bakersfield bought it to add to her collection of John Nichols photographs. It was an image of a rock in a stream in the Sespe. It looked like the swirling cosmos mirrored in a small portion of a small creek near a small town in California. Certain images can be used to perpetuate the miracle of the one thing. That’s what alchemy is all about. That’s what photography as art can be all about.

Please don’t tell anyone I told you about this. It was supposed to be a secret.

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Portraits on July 4th

This gallery contains 12 photos.

I have been working on understanding all the various factors to portraiture so I can make some for the Santa Paula Portrait Project.  Gail Pidduck is blogging about her experiences and I’m working to catch up.  I’ve taken a lot … Continue reading

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2011 Southwest Trip with an iPhone

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