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The Cuyler Studio and home, 1527 North College Avenue

We’ve all heard stories of the woman behind the man having to step up in the event of a family tragedy: Joan Crawford assumed her husband’s position on the board of directors at Pepsi Co after he died; Mary Whitaker Bono ran for Sonny Bono’s California congressional seat after that tragic skiing accident; and Edith Wilson was nicknamed the “secret President,” after President Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke in 1919. There are also many stories of women who already co-operated a business, continuing in the shadow of a husband’s death. Locally, May Wright Sewall continued running the Girls’ Classical School for years after the death of her second husband, Theodore. When former Mayor Lew Shank died, his second wife Evangeline, became President of the Shank Fireproof Storage Company, maintaining the company’s success. And when photographer, W. B. Cuyler died in 1925, his second wife Lucy Madge Cuyler assumed full control and continued operating the Cuyler Photography Studio in Indianapolis.

Reproduction of circa 1870 picture of Greenfield Cornet Band, featuring James Whitcomb Riley, one of the drummers at the back.

William Benjamin Cuyler was born in Ontario, Canada on March 22, but there are conflicting documents saying the year he was born anywhere between 1845 and 1855. He came to Attica, Michigan in 1863 as “head sawyer and engineer” in his father’s mill where he worked for two years before discovering photography. He married Harriet Woodrow on April 19, 1872 in Romeo, Michigan where he ran a photography business. He and his wife had three daughters: Nina Kittie, born September 19, 1873; Laurette Mauvette, born March 27, 1876 and Zoe Letta, born August 8, 1881. Daughter Zoe died of consumption on October 12, 1892 and just over a year later, on November 13, 1893, daughter Kittie died of the same ailment.

It is easy to make up stories when paper trails yield strange results, and in this case, the song “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” came to mind. Mr. Cuyler’s life is partially pieced back together in directories and paper trails throughout various states for a number of years. After Michigan, he was in Wisconsin and then Colorado for a period of five or so years, taking pictures of the great outdoors, a la Ansel Adams. Before Hancock County, Indiana, he lived in a couple of Tennessee cities and Delphi, Indiana briefly. It seems the first Mrs. Cuyler had an aptitude for photography as well, and in her husband’s absence, conducted a photo gallery in Mount Clemens, Michigan for seven years, which she sold in 1894. Meanwhile W. B. Cuyler acquired an existing photography business in Greenfield in 1895.

It just so happened, that among some old glass negative plates left among the paraphernalia in the studio Cuyler acquired in Greenfield, was an image of James Whitcomb Riley and his brothers when they were in the Greenfield Cornet Band, circa 1870–long before he was the famed “Hoosier Poet.” Perhaps there were few photographers in Greenfield, because it was also in Cuyler’s studio, the day after giving a public reading in Greenfield, that one of the most famous portraits of Riley was taken. It was dubbed the “smiled successfully pose.” Riley’s delight with the portrait obviously transitioned into other business, because a newspaper account notes that W. B. Cuyler took the frontispiece photo of Riley’s “Old Swimmin’ Hole” in 1895. The Indiana Historical Society has a picture of “Uncle Gus” by W. B. Cuyler in their collection from 1898, while he was still in Hancock County. By all accounts, Cuyler’s studio in Greenfield was successful until moving to Indianapolis in 1908.

An online archive of cabinet card photographers also has an example from the Greenfield studio, signed W. B. Cuyler, at Lost Gallery, Cabinet Card Photographers. Greenfield was obviously a place for a new life and new start for Cuyler. It is curious, but two marriage licenses may be found, showing Cuyler’s marriage to his second wife. One, in 1891 in Appleton, Missouri and a second marriage to the same Lucy Madge Burge in March 1905 in Greenfield.

They were living together by the time of the 1900 census in Greenfield. And “Mrs. Madge Cuyler” was elected regent of the Greenfield Daughters of the American Revolution chapter created on June 11, 1901, hosted at the Cuyler Studio, where most of the meetings took place through 1908–ostensibly, due to the Cuylers relocation to Indianapolis. The 1910 census says they were married for 19 years. So what’s with the two marriages to the same woman? And why the changing birthdates for both W. B. and second wife Lucy? She was born May 6, 1873, but her age appeared to shift slightly through time as well. There is definitely more to this story, but it may be left to the imagination to ponder.

W. B.’s first wife Harriet shows up in the 1900 census as divorced and living with her single daughter, Mauvette. Presumably it was embarrassment that lead her to declare herself a widow on the subsequent 1910, 1920 and 1930 censuses.

The “smiled successfully pose,” taken by W. B. Culyer.

Whatever the case, W. B. and Lucy Madge bought the spacious College Corner home at 1527 North College Avenue from Morris Herzog in May 1913 for $6200. The top image shows a postcard photo of the Culyer “residence and studio,” postmarked January 1915. It appears the couple ran the business as a partnership until W. B. died in his home on March 14, 1925 following a bout of pneumonia. “Ben Cuyler was one of those good natured, jolly souls who was always welcome in any circle, young and old,” a Greenfield paper pronounced upon his death.

To quote another great song: “The Show Must Go On.” Exactly one week after his death, the second Mrs. Cuyler wanted to make sure everyone knew she was still in business, placing the above ad in a local paper. Her livelihood depended on continuing the photography business. And so she did. Photographs of hers appeared in the paper with some frequency thereafter, and she remained in the business for many years.

Lucy Madge Burge Cuyler (1873-1945)

Lucy Madge Burge died on December 10, 1945 in Greenfield, though she still owned the house on College Avenue in Indianapolis. She was still listed in the business section of the city directory among photographers in 1945, so she must have been working until the year she died.

1945 City Directory showing Mrs. Cuyler still listed among photographers.

In September 1946, Lucy’s estate was being sold by order of Hancock County Circuit Court, and bids for the property requested. “Modern, 11 room residence, 2 car garage.”

The home was the final abode of Virgil D. Jenkins in 1952 and of Frank C. Smallwood in 1959. The last person listed living there was Frank Anderson in 1961. The city directories show the property as vacant until 1970. By 1971, the house number no longer appeared. Sadly, an empty lot has replaced the expansive home of these early Hoosier photographers.

Empty lot, February 2019, 1527 North College Ave.

One response to “Then & Now: The Cuyler Studio, 1527 N. College Ave.”

  1. Brenda Kent says:

    Hello! I have a signed Cuyler old framed photo of a boy with a buddy Lee doll. I wonder if you could tell me more about it?

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