The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.
(Note: This is the fourth part of a series on Thomas and John Connon, Elora’s celebrated photographers. Our impressions of 19th century Elora have been shaped to a considerable degree by the work of the Connons, father and son. Their experiences mirror many of the struggles and successes of other early settlers and entrepreneurs across Wellington County.)
The years after 1880 were not happy ones for Thomas Connon.
He continued to try to earn a living as a full-time photographer, but his income was meagre for the rest of his life. After a term on the school board, he dropped out of public life, but he did remain active in community affairs.
Connon had two major passions outside photography: reading and temperance. In both the Elora Mechanics Institute Library and in the various temperance groups in town, he worked tirelessly behind the scenes. A shy and retiring man, he hated the limelight, but he was always willing to push others into action and to spend hours on organizational work.
Thomas Connon was as responsible as anyone for the fact that Elora possessed one of the largest libraries in the province. In the temperance movement, he spent countless hours getting names on petitions and organizing meetings and rallies.
There were many disappointments in his own life. He possessed a quiet confidence in his abilities as an artist and photographer, and his failure to achieve professional success caused him much disappointment. His health after 1880 seems to have been poor: he stopped taking pictures outside the studio, and in the mid 1880s he stopped work altogether for a couple of years. The nature of his illness is not known; it was one of the mysterious illnesses that sapped the strength of many men in the Victorian period.
On the bright side, Connon’s elder son, John, entered the photographic business in the late 1870s. His father had set up a darkroom for John in 1874, when he was 12, and by 1880 he had become a skilled technician.
Like his father, John Connon was a basement tinkerer and amateur inventor. He picked up some of the experiments that his father had begun.
John invented a new type of shutter in 1882, and secured a patent for it in 1890. The most important of the inventions, though, was the whole circle panoramic camera. It was mounted on a tripod, and rotated in a full circle when taking a picture, producing a long strip negative that captured the scene all around the camera (including the photographer, unless he ducked below the lens).
The whole family – This seems to be the only family portrait of the Connons. From left: front, Elizabeth (Mrs. James Grant), Thomas Sr. and his wife Jean Connon; back, John and Thomas Jr. The picture is not dated, but Tom Connon was born in 1868, and appears to be in his mid-twenties here. It therefore must be about 1895.
The Connons perfected this camera during the 1880s, testing it on local scenes. Often they would use the top of Charles Clark’s building (now Dave Drimmie’s florist shop), which had a flat portion on the roof surrounded by a railing. The working model was produced in 1886 with the help of James Lister, a skilled local machinist.
Eventually John secured a patent on this camera, but he had difficulty making any money out of it. He does not seem to have made any production models himself.
As a young man, John Connon had a great deal of drive and ambition. When Elora began promoting the tourist business in the early 1880s, John Connon capitalized on the trade by setting up a studio in a tent in the Irvine gorge. Here he took portraits of tourists amid the natural scenery of the gorge. He continued this activity sporadically through the 1880s and 1890s. Dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of these pictures have survived.
As well as portraits in the gorge, John Connon took many landscape views there, like his father had been doing for more than 20 years.
The gorge held a mystical fascination for both the Connons, and they returned again and again to photograph it. The Great Western Railway was so delighted with John’s views that they had oversized prints of them framed to hang in their waiting rooms. They were used to promote the railway’s excursion tourist business to Elora.
Thomas Connon’s financial fortunes continued to decline through the 1880s. In 1885, the major credit rating agency reduced its estimate of his worth from $5,000 to less than $2,000. To help support his parents and younger brother, John opened a grocery store in the front of his father’s building in 1883, at the age of 21.
Connon had constructed the building to provide space for two stores, but he had failed to attract permanent tenants for either one.
John Connon had no money and could obtain little credit, so his stock was not extensive. Very quickly, the store became a hangout for Elora oldtimers, and it was through conversations with them, some of whom were the first settlers in the area, that John Connon first developed his interest in local history.
Many merchants disliked having a group of idlers in their stores, gossiping, smoking and getting in the way of legitimate customers. John Connon was fascinated with their stories and the oldtimers, pleased at having a young man as an interested listener, began bringing him old documents and historical items. This was the beginning of Connon’s collection of local history, and he would continue to collect it for the rest of his life.
John Connon continued to run the grocery store until 1889, when he left Elora for New York City. He found employment there in a photographic supply house, Stirn and Lyon, and attempted to capitalize on his panoramic camera. The firm marketed Connon’s invention as The Wonder Camera, but soon after they became bankrupt. John found other employment and remained in New York until 1891.
His father’s health had deteriorated, and he had to support his parents. His brother, Thomas Jr., meanwhile had completed school and was working as a railway telegrapher southwest of Buffalo. John planned to stay in Elora only until his father was well enough to resume work, but as things turned out, he never returned to New York.
Back in Elora, John Connon was faced with the problem of earning a livelihood. The photography studio was still in business, but it did not generate enough revenue to support a family.
In 1892, John struck off on a new course. He began working for the Potter and Cone Electrical Company. This business was established in the old Potter foundry property (later known as the Kiddie Kar factory).
The firm made and installed lighting systems for mills and factories. Much of the equipment it used was reconditioned. By 1892, there was already a brisk market in secondhand electrical equipment. John spent much of his time rebuilding and winding dynamos.
The Potter and Cone firm collapsed when Cone left town without warning. John Connon was out of work again, but he continued in the electrical business on his own. He built the first electrical system for Wilson’s Mill, in Fergus, and some of the equipment for Abraham Groves’ electrical plant in Fergus, as well as a number of other projects in the area.
Thomas Connon’s health continued to be frail through the 1890s. He died in January 1899, at 67.
During his last years, he had been greatly troubled by the loss of religious faith. He remained a member of Chalmers Presbyterian Church, but the solid belief of his early years was replaced with doubts and troubling questions that led him to agnosticism.
Even though he was no longer a believer, his closest friend remained the Rev. James Middlemiss, of Chalmers Church. At the funeral, Middlemiss told the mourners that Connon’s difficulties with religion “were, and especially in recent years, a burden and a grief.”
At the time, Thomas Connon was honoured more for his work with the library and the temperance movement.
Honour for his pioneering work as photographer would not come until later.
*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on March 29, 1994.