A Short Biography of J. D. Byerly

"My son," Jacob Byerly wrote to 14 year old John Davis in 1852, "Remember the instructions of your Father; -- trifle not away your time; reflect, and be careful, read your bible, neglect not its precepts, But take good heed to its instructions, and live accordingly; trample not upon the many good admonitions I have given you . . . " [1]

John Davis Byerly, known to his family and friends as Davis, was born on February 18, 1839 in Newville, Cumberland County, PA [2] into a Pennsylvania German family, which seems to have been dominated by his father. Jacob Byerly was a native Pennsylvanian who moved to Frederick, Maryland in 1842 and set up shop as a daguerrotypist [3], one of the first people in Maryland to sell this new technology. I have been unable to discover how Jacob learned this trade -- he was perhaps taught by a daguerrotypist in Harrisburg, the Capitol City of Pennsylvania. Jacob's first wife, Catherine Baer, either died before the move to Frederick or shortly thereafter, for in 1849 Jacob married his second wife, Catherine E. Hauer [4], and later had two children with her, Grace in 1855 and Harriet in 1857 [5].

It is evident that there was some show of rebellion by the young John Davis during the early years of his father's second marriage. In the same letter, written while Davis was visiting relatives, his father (a pillar of the local evangelical reformed church) rebukes his son for lack of respect towards his stepmother: "What do you suppose your Mother thinks when she finds her name not even mentioned in your letters. I fear you are wanting in affection to her. Have you forgotten all her kindnesses to you when sick . . . and how kind she is to you and how good you have it when at home. Your neglect grows out of either a want of respect or else an absolute want of good sense. . ." [6]

According to Mackensie's History of Frederick County, Davis received his education in the schools in Frederick; however, he was probably not at school in the city, because a letter from his father in November of 1853 or 1854 expresses his concern at the fact that Davis had to share a room with the three Fischer boys, who seem to have been disapproved of by the elder Byerly. Exhorting his son to "be studious, make the most of your time you possibly can, recollect you are costing upwards of fifteen dollars a month," Jacob continues later in his letter, "Try to excel; and stand among the first in your school in the estimation of your Teachers. This will reward me, and be a plume in your Cap; I don't want you to be running home every few weeks, it looks badly. I don't expect you home until Christmas . . . " [7] Due to the fact that Davis was far enough away to be boarding, and his parents to be sending him things rather than bringing them, but close enough to be "running home every few weeks," it is probable that he was at one of the private schools in Frederick County.

The evidence is strong that young Davis spent his school holidays and summer vacations working in his father's shop, for in 1863 he is listed as a photographer in his father's studio on 29 North Market Street [8]. In 1867, Davis took a prolonged trip into the south, perhaps to document the devastation caused by the Civil War. A letter from his sister Grace in October tells him that the summer was very wet, but the fall has been lovely. She goes on to write "how pleasant it will be when you are come home from the gallery of evenings to sit around the fire in Mother's room and get you to tell us all about down south in Dixieland, . . ." [9] Grace ends her letter by sending "a thousand kisses" from their little sister Hallie, and love from Mame Markell. Mame (or Mary) was the daughter of a prominent merchant in Frederick and a fellow member of the Grace Evangelical Reformed Church [10].

1869 saw several changes for the Byerly family. Jacob, who had been a photographer in Frederick for over 25 years, retired from the business and turned the studio over to his son. Davis placed an ad in the local paper proclaiming the fact, and included a notice from his father saying that Davis was now running the business in the same studio on North Market Street [11]. Then, on October 27,1869, 30 year old John Davis married 20 year old Mary Markell at the Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Frederick [12].

The Byerly Picture Gallery flourished under Davis' direction; he was able to hire and train several assistants, two at least of whom later became competitors of his in Frederick. As his business grew, so did the family in their home on West Patrick Street [13]. Mary Catherine was born in 1871, John Davis in 1872, and Charles in 1874 [14]. There is a reference in the History of Frederick County to another child, but I have been unable to locate any trace of the mystery child [15]

Business continued to be good for the Byerlys. In 1880, John Porter described the Byerly Picture Gallery in his book Maryland and its Industrial Developments: "It is situated in the best possible location in Frederick City, has large, well lighted rooms, and possesses every advantage which modern invention can suggest . . . Examination of his portraits shows a pleasing and agreeable variety -- the positions given have an ease and grace not often attained by photography, and in this, together with the admirable finish of his work, may be found the secret of Mr. B's great success. . . ."[16]

J. Davis' great success in the 1880s and 1890s was marred, however, by a series of personal tragedies. The patriarch of the family, Jacob, died in 1883 at the age of 76 [17]. "He was held in high esteem by all who knew him," wrote Folger MacKinsey in 1910 [18]. Davis' stepmother Catherine died in 1885 [19], and in 1890 his sister Grace, who had entreated him to return from his travels in the south in 1867, died at the age of 35 of paralysis [20]. Difficult as these deaths must have been for Davis, however, with the next year came a loss that must have put all the others in the background. Davis' eldest son, John Davis, died on November 29, 1891 at the age of 19. The Frederick News' obituary column poetically titled "The Work of Death," began his obituary, "When death comes to the aged we look upon it as a visitation of the inevitable, but when it comes to one so young, so inestimable as a friend and companion, so thoughtful of the comfort and happiness of those about him, we feel to pang more keenly and sensibly."[21] It is obvious that Davis and Mary were much affected by the death of their eldest son, as is shown by a poignant photograph of the family plot in Mount Olivet Cemetery taken by J. D. Byerly[22].

In 1899, J. Davis retired from the photographic studio. He was 60 years old and had been running the studio for 30 years. However, his retirement did not mean the end of the Byerly Picture Gallery, for like his father, Davis gave the business to his son Charles, who had gone to school in Frederick and like Davis had probably assisted at the studio from the time he was old enough to carry equipment [23]. Mary Catherine was married that year to the son of a successful merchant family, and Charles three years later in 1902 [24].

After his retirement, Davis continued to be active in the community, in his church, the Republican Party, and his social club, the Order of Red Men [25]. He was one of the most prominent men in Frederick, and was well liked and respected by the entire community. On February 18, 1914, John Davis Byerly died suddenly at his home on West Patrick Street, on his 75th birthday. The photography studio his father had founded in the days of daguerreotypes was just over 70 years old, and had been run by three successive generations of the Byerly family. Although the studio no longer exists, the Byerly Building still stands on North Market Street, a proud remainder of a photographic dynasty.

Back to Photographs at the Maryland State Archives

by Emily A. Murphy, Assistant Registrar and Curator of Photographs, Maryland State Archives