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H. Lee Waters: Accidental Historian leaves lasting legacy

“It was his life” Accidental historian leaves lasting legacy for his beloved town By Ryan Jones

Herbert Lee Waters never worked a day in his life. At least that’s what his family and those who knew him best would say about the beloved studio photographer, filmmaker, and documentarian who spent endless hours capturing both the average and the extraordinary in Lexington and beyond.

A brand new exhibit at the Davidson County Historical Museum in the Old Court House celebrates the life and still photography of Waters, who worked for more than half a century from the Main Street studio he purchased from J.J. Hitchcock in 1926. Alongside a variety of artifacts pulled from the studio and donated by family members, the exhibit features a collection of around 40 black and white images carefully curated from the hundreds of prints and negatives kept in storage for close to 20 years.

The prints, remastered from original negatives by Snow Photo in High Point, are organized for display into four distinct sections. Each one demonstrates Waters’ frequent habit of breaking free from portraiture to venture into the streets, recording the period landscape and daily activities of average citizens.

“Mr. Waters was a curious, energetic person. He did a lot of enterprise work. If something interested him he went out to see it,” said Catherine Hoffman, curator of the Davidson County Historical Museum. Before his death in 1997, she established a relationship with Waters and began the long process of cataloging the massive body of work he would eventually leave behind. Over the years, pieces of Waters’ work have been used to bolster other exhibits at the museum, but this is the first time an exhibit has been dedicated solely to his legacy.

“The hardest thing was deciding what to print,” Hoffman said. She noted that an online component to the exhibit will expand upon the physical display and allow the public to dig deeper into Waters’ work. The selection of photos at the museum itself may also rotate.

The “Uptown Lexington” section features scenes of bustling, early-to-mid-century small town life against a backdrop of bygone businesses like the Belk Martin Company, the Carolina theater, People’s Drug Store, and Raylass Department Store.

“Uptown was his neighborhood (and) he captured that vitality,” said Hoffman.  She believes visitors will especially enjoy comparing the way Uptown’s buildings looked then to the way they look today. “This collection shows how he interacted with the community. The minute you see these photographs you’re immediately drawn in.”

The “High Rock Lake Dam” series chronicles the completion of Tallassee Power Company’s project to transform the tiny town of Newsom into the fisherman’s paradise and recreational haven that thousands of visitors and permanent residents know and love today. The commissioned photographs capture the period between 1926 and 1927 during which 10,000 acres of land were cleared and flooded.

The “Junior Order of American Mechanics’ Home” gallery showcases the earliest days of what is now known as the American Children’s Home. Originally established to house orphaned children of Junior Order United American Mechanics members, the organization eventually began accepting placements through the Department of Social Services. Waters shares an intimate look into the lives of early residents, who often participated in group activities and occupational training such as farming, butchering, and typing.

The “Erlanger Mill Village” photos reveal the inner workings of communal life as experienced by the employees of Lexington’s most prolific textile mill and their families. Established in 1913 by mill owners Abraham and Charles Erlanger, the village and its residents would develop a unique identity and culture over the next 15 years. Waters’ photos not only capture the beauty of the neighborhood’s Craftsman bungalows, but social and civic activities like carnivals, dances, potluck gatherings, pageants, and more. Notably, children are the subject of many of the images.

“Children were attracted to him because he was so much fun,” said Waters’ daughter, Mary Spaulding. “He was especially good with children in his studio.”

Along with her brother, Tom Waters, Spaulding remembers putting on circus acts in the family’s backyard while her father played the drums and trumpet. She also remembers how her father involved the entire family in nearly every aspect of his business. They would accompany Waters on many of his trips to photograph local events. Her mother, Mabel (Gerald) Waters, was also known for spending long hours in the studio tinting portraits by hand and posing subjects during sessions.

“It was a great partnership,” said Spaulding. Between them, she and Tom Spaulding have expanded Waters’ surviving relatives to include seven grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. “He was a fun father. Anybody in town who knew him would say ‘Oh yeah, there goes H. Lee, riding his motorcycle around town in a three piece suit.’”

Waters was known also as an innovator, explained Hoffman. When the Depression set in, he supplemented his income from portraits and commissioned work by branching out into filmmaking. He travelled to cities all across North Carolina and parts of Virginia creating short films that he called “Movies of Local People.” Much of the surviving footage can now be viewed online thanks to a project of Duke University Libraries Digital Collections. Beyond that, Waters also catered to military families by making portraits of draftee groups and departing servicemen. Wives would often commission Waters to ensure enlisted fathers could see images of their growing families. “He always came up with new ways of bringing customers in,” said Spaulding.

In spite of the industriousness that drove Waters to produce the sheer volume of work now being revered, Spaulding thinks he would most likely wonder what all the “fuss” was about if he were still around.

“I don’t think my dad had any idea how many photographs he had. When you’re busy earning a living you’re unaware of what a collection it is. He loved what he did. He just felt a passion for taking photographs and freezing those moments in the history of Lexington. It was more fun for him. It was a hobby. It was his life.”

“There is no alternate source for this information and that’s what makes this an outstanding exhibit. We feel this collection is unique in the country,” said Hoffman. “Photographers come and go but Mr. Waters stayed in his studio and took pictures through the 80s. The body of work is not only large but it focuses on Davidson County, which is unique.”

“This exhibit is a real dream come true for our family,” said Spaulding. This has been going on for many years. We’re so thankful to Catherine. When the studio closed (she) was able to be there when they were cleaning it out. She was able to rescue photographs that might have been thrown out in the chaos. They (the Davidson County Historical Museum staff) have worked so hard to get them filed and identified as much as possible. This is the place it should be. Even though most of the people he knew are gone, their children and grandchildren will recognize people in these photographs. It’s very important to have this as a permanent exhibit in Lexington. It’s just fabulous.”


The Davidson County Historical Museum is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. The H. Lee. Waters Online Gallery can be found at HLeeWaters-Photography.com.