H. Lee Waters’ second floor studio on South Main Street provided a window to the hustle and bustle of the busy commercial district below. Inside the studio he made portraits of thousands of local residents. But outside its confines he recorded all aspects of daily life in his community. His extensive documentation of this area, combined with images earlier photographers left behind in the studio, produced a unique record of how Uptown looked as early as WWI, and how buildings and businesses changed in the years since. The Uptown Lexington Historic District was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1996.
Erlanger Mill Village was carefully planned for the employees of Lexington’s largest and most productive textile mill. Mill owners Abraham and Charles Erlanger were New York textile magnates recruited to North Carolina by Lexington businessman George Mountcastle. Construction of the mill and hundreds of houses began in 1913 and continued for 15 years. The remarkably stylish Craftsman bungalows were added between 1917 and 1923. The mill originally provided fabric for men’s “union suits.” The Village was annexed into Lexington in 1942, but maintained its unique identity through many social and civic activities that occurred in the Village through the 1960s. Erlanger Mill Village was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2008.
The “Junior Order Home” opened in Lexington in 1928. Sponsored by the Junior Order of United American Mechanics, the Home initially served orphaned children of members of J.O.U.A.M., one of America’s oldest fraternal organizations. Later placements were made through the Department of Social Services. Throughout its history the Junior Order Home has provided a caring, nurturing environment, and for many years occupational training was offered. A group of local businessmen, led by civic leader George Mountcastle, traveled to Tipton, Ohio to recruit the orphanage for the new facility outside Lexington. Now called the American Children’s Home, alumni hold a reunion each August.
H. Lee Waters’ first big commercial job was to document the construction of High Rock Lake Dam, built by Tallassee Power Company, 1926-1927. Waters visited the site at regular intervals to record the rapid progress. once after a big snow. Tallassee started filling the lake after clearing 10,000 acres of land, which required moving many families out of the area, and flooding the small town of Newsom. The reservoir was completed on April 14, 1928, and for many years the lake was primarily used by fishermen -- housing and recreation were not widespread until the 1950s. Waters’ beautiful sepia-toned prints were scanned to produce this gallery.
H. Lee Waters’ clients included African-American citizens of Lexington and the surrounding area. Waters made their portraits in his South Main Street studio, and went into minority neighborhoods, homes, churches and schools for his commercial work. Everyday life during segregation can be seen in incidental content of images Waters shot around town. While difficult to gauge how Waters’ relationship to this community compared to other photographers of his day, he seemed to take note of everyone – not just the well-to-do. Like many other noted documentary photographers he was able to put people at ease, making them, and not the cameraman, the subject of the image.