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Developing a view of Wellesley’s past

Charles Ottman captured life in the idyllic village of Wellesley between 1902 and 1906 before his untimely death. Pictured, a cement culvert is being installed to replace a wooden mill race. Inset, railway work at the Wallenstein bridge. [Submitted]

When the village of Wellesley met to discuss the fate of their beloved and historic pond, it was to Charles Ottman and his photographs that the community could turn to for perspective. There, captured in the grainy stills, was a vibrant portrait of the village at the turn of the 20th century, its people and culture and treasured landmarks, some of which have survived through today.

Perhaps the village’s only resident professional photographer of that era, Ottman’s photographs have come to offer a rare glimpse into life in the village 120 years prior.

It is for those valuable contributions to posterity that Ottman was inducted into the Waterloo Region Hall of Fame at a ceremony on Sunday at the Ken Seiling Waterloo Region Museum.

“His photos are very important to us for the views of Wellesley that they show,” said Nancy Maitland, curator of the Wellesley Township Heritage and Historical Society, who nominated Ottman for the Hall of Fame.

Attending the ceremony were some of Ottman’s relatives. Though born 140 years ago in 1879, Ottman is nonetheless survived by his nephew, David Briggs, who made the trip from his home in Ottawa to take part in the ceremony.

“It’s just extraordinary. Nobody else that I know of in my family [has been honoured] like that,” said Briggs, whose mother, Persida Briggs, was Ottman’s sister. “I was born long after he died, but my mother was 20 years younger than him.”

Not much was  known about Ottman, who died young at age at 27, and to learn more Maitland dug through the Wellesley Historical Society’s own archives. Through her detective work, Maitland was able to piece together the circumstances of his life.

Born in 1879 as the eldest of 12 siblings, Ottman was the son of a harness and saddle-maker in Wellesley village, Charles Ottman senior. The junior Ottman joined the family business in 1901 until the early onset of tuberculosis likely forced him to find a less strenuous occupation. So he became a photographer.

“He took photos in the village and then turned them into postcards, and would sign them. And he had a studio in the village, so he did commercial photography,” explained Maitland. “It was interesting what he felt was going to be a sale-able postcard.”

Much of what Maitland has been able to glean of his life has come from the pages of the newspaper of record at the time, the Wellesley Maple Leaf, where Ottman would advertise his work. Occasionally, events captured by Ottman’s lens would even be reported in the local newspaper.

One such occasion was when a pair of oxen came into town carrying bushels of wheat. A rare sight in those parts at the time, the oxen were taken to the local school afterwards for a visit. The event proved to be such a treat for the community that it was featured in the Wellesley Maple Leaf, says Maitland.

“Mr. David Roth, just west of St Agatha, had his fine yoke of Polled Angus oxen in Wellesley last Friday with a load of chop,” reads the May 17, 1906 article. “While in the village they were hitched to a wagon loaded with 140 bushels of wheat and drew it up the hill in front of the mill with very little apparent exertion.

“At noon they were taken to the school and shown to the scholars most of whom had never soon an ox team before, although there are several in the village to whom oxen to the early days were plentiful, and horses nearly as scarce as oxen are now.”

Ottman’s photograph captures the youth riding in the back of the cart, wearing broad smiles at the spectacle.

Other photos show variations of the Wellesley pond, including villagers skating and playing hockey over the frozen surface in the winter. But perhaps Maitland’s favourite photo is off the Ottman family itself, sitting outside the harness shop and their home next door, which lay along the present day Queen’s Bush Road near the corner Nafziger Road.

“I think it was an idyllic time, but I think it was an idyllic view of the village, certainly,” said Maitland.

Ottman was inducted alongside seven others to the 2019 Hall of Fame, including Martin Buhr, co-founder of The Food Bank of Waterloo and Mennohomes; Martha (Marty) Deacon, who was appointed to the Canadian Senate in 2018; and artist and sculptor Ruth Abernethy.

More photographs of Ottman’s, as well as newspaper clippings and other historical documents have been posted online. Those who would like to donate original photographs or lend electronic copies are also encouraged to contact the historical society, Maitland notes.

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