In the waning days of the Great Depression, local business leaders addressed the issue of attracting industry to Huntington. There were a few manufacturing concerns in Town at the time: the Cantrell auto body factory, Kenyon Instrument Company, and Suffolk Leather Goods (see “Fighting Unemployment with Luggage,” posted December 2012). But there were those who didn’t think Huntington was a place for industry. Some of the older
members of a committee appointed to explore the issue recalled their boyhood employment in a camera factory on Park Avenue around the beginning of the twentieth century.[i]
A camera factory on Park Avenue 120 years ago?
Yes, Huntington manufactured more than just bricks in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Huntington’s photographic venture appears to have started with chickens.
William H. Lewis, whose family’s involvement with photography and photo equipment dates back to the 1840s, purchased land on the west side of Park Avenue, north of Crooked Hill Road in the 1880s. At first, he set up a gentleman’s farm called Hillside Poultry Farm. In early 1891, the farm was home to some 300 chickens of various types. Lewis hoped to expand his flock to nearly 2,000 before the next winter. The chicken house was octagon shaped with separate pens on each side of the buildings’ eight sides. His prize winning chickens were shown throughout New York and Connecticut in such places as the Huntington fairgrounds, the Mineola fairgrounds, and Madison Square Garden. Lewis had “spared no pains or expense in fixing [the farm] up in good shape and now has as fine a summer home there as any gentleman coming out of New York city could desire.” The farm was not as full time enterprise because the article explains that Lewis “no doubt greatly enjoys spending his time, when not engaged in business in the metropolis, at his hillside farm.”[ii]
Lewis continued to work at his family’s photographic factory in Brooklyn. The business claimed to have made the first photographic equipment in the United States back in the 1840s. Over the years, three generations of the Lewis family filed for dozens of photography patents, including one for the first bellows camera.[iii]
Although poultry farming seems to have been Lewis’s first endeavor in Huntington, he did engage local builder Hewlett J. Long to build a large building on his property[iv] and cottages. For example in 1887, Long built for Lewis “another handsome Queen Anne cottage on his property on Park Avenue.”[v]
By the early 1890s, manufacturing of photographic equipment joined chicken farming. Over the next two decades, the venture suffered from a variety of setbacks, but returned to business time after time.
The first catastrophe occurred in 1895. On May 27, at around 9:45 p.m. a neighbor returning from a Wild West show in the village noticed flames coming from the Lewis factory. He sounded the alarm and the fire department quickly responded, but the factory and much of the inventory were a total loss. Neighbors managed to retrieve some tools and books before the fire completely consumed the building. Efforts to keep the fire from spreading to the nearby houses were successful. The loss included door frames for a new cottage in East Neck[vi] indicating that the factory was not limited to photographic equipment, but also produced millwork.
Lewis wasted no time in rebuilding. Within two weeks he had reached a settlement with his insurance carriers and commenced work on a new factory.[vii] By October his new factory was up and running. Twenty two men were employed to produce photographic equipment (69 cases worth in one week), trim for ten new houses in the village, and thermometers (2,000 to 7,000 a week). Although Lewis endeavored to hire locally, the skill level required for his work sometimes necessitated bringing in workers from out of town. Six new families moved to Huntington to work in the factory. He also completed another cottage in his mini-factory town.[viii]
By November of 1897, fifty men were employed in the factory which was now under the management of Gouverneur E. Smith & Co. of New York City. They produced “tripods, racks, mounters, printing frames and other photographic sundries. The products were sold to Siegel, Cooper & Co, Bloomingdales, and other large retailers.[ix]
But business was not good. In 1900, Republic Savings and Loan Association commenced a foreclosure action against the Lewis concern. The land, some 27 acres, was sold in late July. The factory property was sold on August 11.[x] The closing of the factory and the resulting unemployment caused Lewis’s cottages to be vacated one by one.
In October, The Huntington Photographic Supply and Novelty Manufacturing Company was incorporated. The directors read like a who’s who of turn of the century Huntington business leaders: James M. Brush and Henry S. Brush (of the Brush Block and the Bank of Huntington), Hiram A. Baylis, Douglass Conklin, and Willard N. Baylis, a well-connected lawyer, along with Lewis. The new company purchased the old Lewis factory at the foreclosure sale.[xi]
At the end of 1901, James H. Smith Co of Chicago leased the factory for a term of years and promised to resume the manufacture of cameras in mid-January.[xii] In 1902, the factory was again humming. Now thirty men were employed and Lewis was the superintendent on behalf of the Smith company. The cameras were not for the amateur market but for professionals working in studios. The cameras and stands were considered attractive pieces of furniture as well as photo making equipment. With the resumption of activity at the factory, the houses were once again occupied.[xiii]
But the prosperity was not to last. In 1904, the Smith Company shipped the factory’s machinery to Chicago.[xiv] Two years later, the factory was leased to the Hartford Optical Manufacturing Company to produce photographic lenses. Initially the workforce would be similar in size as before, but it was hoped that it would grow to 300 to 400 employees.[xv] That was not to be. By 1920, the old factory was being torn down for its lumber.[xvi]
Today the land that once housed the photo factory is owned by the Town of Huntington as part of the Heritage Nature Trail which connects the Hillaire Preserve to the Village Green and Heckscher Park.
[i] The Long-Islander, April 24, 1941
[ii] The Long-Islander, March 21, 1891
[iv] The Long-Islander, March 5, 1886
[v] The Long-Islander, December 10, 1887
[vi] The Long-Islander, June 1, 1895
[vii] The Long-Islander, June 15, 1895
[viii] The Long-Islander, October 19, 1895
[ix] The Long-Islander, November 13, 1897
[x] The Long-Islander, August 3, 1900
[xi] The Long-Islander, October 19, 1900
[xii] The Long-Islander, December 20, 1901
[xiii] The Long-Islander, October 17, 1902
[xiv] The Long-Islander, June 24, 1904
[xv] The Long-Islander, February 2, 1906
[xvi] The Long-Islander, March 5, 1920