The Lowell Area Historical Museum is offering a weekly feature to explore local history. This week, museum staff tell us about Norton Louis Avery who was a prolific photographer in the early 20th Century. To learn more about Lowell history, visit the museum website to explore its collection of local artifacts and records.
Born in 1894, Norton Louis Avery spent 90 years adding to the legacy of the Avery family name in Lowell and the world. Though Norton and his wife Ruby lived for a while in the Lansing area, Lowell was always home. While Abel Avery purchased from Daniel Marsac the land on the East side of the Flat River and sold the ”Avery” plats, his great-great grandson captured forever images of Lowell.
His dad, Sherman Avery, was employed at the Lowell Cutter Factory, and it was there that Norton began working his first job at 11 or 12 years old. He earned enough to purchase his first camera. By 1912, he was already a successful photographer, known for working with new processes and his artistry skills. While attending Lowell High School, he did the photography for the yearbook ‘Retrospectus’ and advertised his studio within its pages. He stated that he had inherited a love for the beautiful and an artistic temperament from his mother, who was a natural artist in oils.
Grandfather George served in the Civil War Co F 2nd MI Cavalry, and Norton continued the family service by serving from March 1918 to June 1919 in the Army Signal Corps photographing captured German airplanes for intelligence purposes during World War I. On December 19, 1918, the Lowell Ledger printed a letter from Norton to his mother and father. It was written the week of the signing of the Armistice. He told of the celebrations in France. He explained how he would be there for a few additional months as they would still have to compile all the data into book form to send to Washington. He encouraged the folks to write and tell him about American celebrations. In his parting words he wrote, “Now that this thing is practically over you folks ought to feel pretty happy as the parents of 75,000 boys have had to stand the grief of parting with their boys and you don’t have that to worry you any more so just cheer up and we’ll all be back again soon with some experiences that we never will forget.”
He didn’t just work in photography, his love was photography. He photographed nature and historic sites, but not just for the Lowell area. He traveled the southwest, photographing along the way. He promoted tourism with beautiful color photographs that were then turned into postcards, placemats, and stationary. Avery was a part of the West Central Michigan Historical Society and spent innumerable hours taking pictures and collecting data for the files.
The Averys bought property in Lowell Township that had been part of the N.P. Husted Nurseries and kept it as a nature sanctuary. It was an 80 acre tract located on the southwest corner of Alden Nash and 36th Street.
Norton was known for seeing something special in the ordinary… “to the artistic, appreciative and photographic eye of Norton there seemed to be a ‘special picture’ in the ordinary things he and most people saw.”
The Averys had two sons, Keith and Hoyt Avery, who were also artists. Keith was a horseman, poet, and artist of the southwest. After Keith and his wife, Carol, retired from teaching at Lowell High School, they moved to Roswell, New Mexico, to pursue their interests in the southwest. Hoyt famously published his photography of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula on postcards, stationery, and placemats and sold especially to tourists.
Today, part of the Norton Louis Avery collection is preserved at the Michigan State Archives. The Lowell Area Historical Museum has many of the local photos and postcards taken by Norton Avery featuring downtown Lowell, Lowell Showboat, the Fairgrounds, covered bridges of the area, school classes, and his drawings of Fallasburg.
The featured image on the website is Norton Avery at a young age with his camera.
Pictured below: Norton Louis Avery was an active member of the West Central Michigan Historical Society (1960s, 1970s, 1980s). This organization preceded the Fallasburg Historical Society and the Lowell Area Historical Museum. Back row standing (left to right): Norton Louis Avery, Clynis A. Benson, Ida Benson, Nona Kyser, Robert Kyser, Gordon Johnson , Virginia Tichelar. Front row sitting: Ruby Christiansen, Doris Myers, Donald McPherson, Lenora Tower, Ferris Miller, Lucy Miller.
Below: Norton made sketches of each building for the Fallasburg Pioneer Village project.