Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

When the dapper Englishman John Aked Mather (1829-1915) stepped from the stage coach in Titusville, Crawford County, that October day in 1860, he had no idea that he was about to become the pre-eminent chronicler of a Pennsylvania phenomenon, petroleum. But for five and a half decades Mather recorded the birth and development of the new industry, one which would forever change the way the nation – and the world – lived, worked, and played. Son of a papermill superinten­dent, Mather had joined the rush to northwestern Pennsylvania to become rich. He and his work would, instead, become icons of the industry.

Born at Heapfold Bury, the second of seven children, Mather was raised on the stark moors of Lancashire, attended the Wesleyan Methodist Church, and learned his father’s trade of making paper. In the 1840s, the family moved to Alton, Staffordshire, and in 1849 John’s older brother Edmund emigrated to Fitchburg, Massachusetts, followed by John’s next younger brother Robert. John, who had saved one thousand dollars, followed his brothers – both of them also papermakers – in 1856. During his travels in the United States he first visited Edmund at Sterrett’s Gap near Carlisle, Cumberland County, and later Robert, who lived in Tennessee.

Although offered a promising opportunity to join Robert in a paper mill venture, he turned it down. A handsome man, a talented musician, and very much the bon-vivant, John A. Mather was not yet ready to settle down. A chance encounter with a traveling daguerreotypist introduced him to a fascinating new trade at which he soon became adept and one which satisfied his seemingly insatiable wanderlust with travel through Pennsylvania and Ohio.

It was at Bedford, Ohio, that Mather met Helen, daughter of a substantial landowner. The couple traveled to the next town, Twinsburg, where they were married by the Rev. Samuel Bissell on July 6, 1859. Helen soon grew tired of constant traveling, and in spring of the following year the couple decided on Painesville, northeast of Cleveland, as a promising location to set up housekeep­ing and a business. In Painesville they met the individual who was to play a crucial role in Mather’s destiny. While staying at a boarding house owned by John Weaver, the Mathers met William Hart, a clerk of some means, who had been recruited to manage a hotel in Titusville, the Keystone State’s first oil boomtown. It took little time for the impetuous Mather to decide to join Hart on a journey to Titusville. With Helen, Hart and his wife Caroline and their three children, Mather boarded the train for Corry, Erie County, for the first leg of the journey and so embarked on a lifelong vocation.

Mather needed a studio, and he found quarters with the necessary skylight occupied by jeweler Joseph Conover, on West Spring Street in Titusville. Helen meanwhile searched the tiny borough (population only 438 in that summer’s census) for a plot of land on which they could build a house and enjoy the tranquil life of which she dreamed. She found and bought a suitable site just three blocks west of her husband’s gallery. However, it became immediately obvious that John’s real studio was the entire Oil Creek Valley. Although he was not the only photographer in the valley, Mather was surely the most ubiquitous. In his photographic wagon, sometimes pulled by oxen through mires and over precipitous grades which passed as cartways, and in his flatboat studio on the creek, he traveled to new oil strikes, documenting for owners and drillers, promoters and entrepreneurs, brokers and traders, the successes of the valley’s oil farms. Every major strike – from Pithole to Shamburg, from Cherry Tree to Rouseville, from Funkville to Red Hot­ – was captured by Mather’s lens. Even a freshet in 1865 that crushed his floating studio did not daunt Mather; he adver­tised a few days later that he was “still alive” and still in business.

In 1867, Mather’s brother Edmund, accompanied by his wife Jane and their daughter Sarah, arrived in Titusville, where he planned to build a paper mill. A Civil War veteran who had been shell­shocked at Antietam, Edmund was semi-invalid, and could tolerate neither the region’s climate nor the frenzy of its early oil boom years. He and his family eventually left, after having strengthened their ties with John and having formed a friendship with Helen.

John and Helen Mather’s marriage began to show the strain of the photogra­pher’s frequent and extended absences. His volatile disposition, chronic restless­ness, and proclivity for plunging into risky financial ventures upset Helen, who needed a peaceful, secure life. Helen did not hesitate to complain. Records reveal that, on more than one occasion, she repurchased their home, which had been sold by her impulsive husband to raise money for another of his ventures. Mather’s investments in oil rarely proved successful, but the second well at Lillie Farm did produce forty barrels of oil a day in 1871. He promptly sold it to try again for the “big one.” His father, still living in England but having fallen on hard times, was also a constant financial drain on his sons.

Mather’s Gallery, located by 1864 in Titusville’s new Chase and Stewart Building, also required money to support the overhead: eighteen hundred dollars for equipment alone plus wages for several employees, including A. B. Rockwood, the “artist” responsible for tinting, matting, and framing the increasing volume of portraits and hand­-colored views; Marion Thompson, the gallery’s “photographess”; and C. Stoddard, the “assistant” who traveled with Mather. The proprietor and creative wellspring of an innovative business with significant financial potential, John A. Mather, nevertheless, found the promise of oil, and the fortune it might bring, alluring – and distracting.

In late 1869, Helen left Titusville for Harrisburg for an extended visit with her brother-in-law Edmund Mather and his family. Jane Mather was a leading milliner in the state capital, and daugh­ter Sarah, a talented musician and recent graduate of Miss Woodward’s School, was taking private instruction in voice, instrument, composition, and opera. Helen became a welcome addition to the family, making buying trips to Baltimore and Philadelphia with Jane, sharing household duties, visiting friends, and attending church – until February 24, 1870, when word came that her father was dying at Bedford, Ohio.

Following her father’s funeral and the settlement of his estate, Helen Mather returned to Titusville. In September, John filed for divorce. Represented by attorney Roger Sherman, Helen demand­ed a trial by jury, but the January-term trial was adjourned to depositions as property settlements were agreed upon. Both her property in Bedford and the house in Titusville were settled on her and she was to receive alimony of five dollars yearly. The court handed down the final decree in June 1871. Helen returned to Ohio.

In September 1871, John Mather headed for Cherry Tree – and trouble. A skittish horse and Mather’s unsteady hand resulted in a wagon accident in which he suffered broken ribs and a punctured lung. The incident most likely introduced him to the great love of his life, Mattie Tarr. Daughter of George L. and Martha Hays Tarr of Cherry Tree, she was the niece of James Tarr, whose oil farm brought him more than two million dollars through leases and royalties, and the cousin of George and Nancy Bennehof Tarr (and the Bennehof oil rights were highly productive). The couple probably married in November, he forty-two years old, she eighteen, and Mather acquired a wife and a mother-in-law. Martha Hays Tarr lived with John and Mattie Mather until her death in 1899.

A daughter Sarah Emily – the same name Edmund and Jane Mather had given to their daughter twenty years earlier – was born in September 1872. After a period of estrangement, Edmund in 1875 deeded property acquired during his failed Titusville venture to Mattie, where the Mathers lived briefly. Mattie Mather sold the property. In 1885, she purchased a dwelling on East Main Street, where she and her husband lived out their lives.

By 1875, the frenetic days of the major strikes, the gushers, the proverbial “big ones” in the Oil Creek Valley had ended. Exploration had moved to the Butler Field and the Bradford Field. Mather followed the petroleum industry to some extent, but his ties to Titusville ran deep. Life on the leases of the Oil Creek Valley remained comfortable; money that oil generated in banking, refining, manufac­turing, transportation, and related industries provided a rich life for many Titusville residents.

John A. Mather began to work less on the leases and in the fields and more in his studio. Previously he had focused on the lease and included the houses, people, and life style. Now he began to focus on the houses, people, and life style the leases made possible. The daily life of the community became his focus: the scholars of the imposing 1873 Drake Street School, the lavish garden parties at mansions built by oil fortunes, family gatherings on the lawns of more modest residences, picnickers in parks, or children making their way to Sunday School outings. Just as he had created unforgettable images of nineteenth­-century life on the oil lease, he began to probe and capture the life and times which followed the boom years. His portraits are revealing character studies; his shots of interiors illuminate the lives lived in them; his photographs of hotels and boarding houses document the ways in which travelers and boarders were welcomed and entertained; and his images of period amusements illustrate how Titusville area residents occupied their leisure hours.

For John A. Mather, no subject was too difficult, no personal emergency so pressing as to interrupt his capturing the moment. In 1892, as Titusville literally burned around him – and his twenty thousand glass negatives in jeopardy!­ – Mather set up his cameras to document the devastation: firemen manning their tea-kettle engines, the twisted remains of fallen bridges, the melted tanks of refineries, the foundations of what once had been houses, and the gatherings of stunned residents whose lives had been shattered. He was sixty-three years old, the archive of his life’s work was threatened (he apparently rarely cleaned a plate for re-use, a common practice of the day), yet he positioned his camera in a second story laundry window to record the event, then ventured out into the inferno, leaving his plates to be loaded by hired laborers he had pulled in off the streets. Researchers estimate that as many as sixteen thousand original plates made by Mather were lost through breakage and water damage.

Examining his remaining plates in 1895, Mather decided to publish at least a part of “his” history. Working with Edwin C. Bell (1845-1923), a newspaperman with thirty years experience (and now consid­ered by many to be Pennsylvania’s first “oil historian”), Mather published a twenty-four page book complete with Bell’s notes on great moments in oil history. The book did not reach a wide market nor relieve his financial distress. Dismayed but not discouraged, Mather prepared a list of several hundred negatives and offered to create individu­alized books of twelve views specifically ordered by the customer. The frontispiece of each paid tribute to “Colonel” Edwin L. Drake (1819-1880), the oil pioneer who had also failed to prosper (see “The Valley That Changed the World: Visiting the Drake Well Museum” by Jane Ockershausen in the summer 1995 issue of Pennsylvania Heritage).

Mather’s daughter Sarah married, at about the turn of the century, a Philadelphia widower who already had seven children. She returned to Titusville with her only daughter before Mattie’s death in 1904. John Mather remained in the house on East Main Street, renting the main section and living in the smaller ell. In 1915, he entered his final illness, and Sarah was present when he died. The house, which had been transferred to her name following her mother’s death, was sold to pay debts, which included a paving lien and a judgment of one hundred dollars owed to E. B. Tarr. Edmund sent fifty dollars to help defray the costs of his brother’s funeral. Mather’s plot in Oildom’s Woodlawn Cemetery had long been sold, and he was buried with Mattie in her family’s plot at the Oakland Church Cemetery near Dempseytown. The Drake Memorial Association, formed by Edwin C. Bell, purchased Mather’s remaining photographic plates for one hundred dollars, and they, with addi­tional views and prints, are the basis for the four thousand piece Mather Collection at the Drake Well Museum, administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, near Titusville.

Possessing both a technician’s skill and an innate artistic aptitude, John A. Mather was a master of the collodian glass plate process. Those who know well his work immediately recognize his distinctive style, his finely balanced compositions, and his ability to capture minute – but revealing – details. From his darkrooms – in Titusville or on location in the Oil Creek Valley – flowed a seemingly endless stream of stereopti­con views, cartes de visite, ambrotypes, and prints. His lens, truly an eye of history, documented for posterity the production of the oil that provided the power needed to fuel the Industrial Revolution, yielded the lighting resource that extended the dawn-to-dusk work­day to longer, more flexible hours, and offered the balance of payment that helped finance the Union’s foreign debts incurred during the Civil War.

The work of John Aked Mather­ – important to generations of both industrial and social historians­ – remains, after more than a century, indisputably unique. Remarkably (and regrettably), it is virtually unknown and the collection safeguarded by the Drake Well Museum remains an untapped treasure trove. Even to this day, directo­ries of significant nineteenth-century photographers rarely mention Mather, except in passing, and many of his images have been wrongly attributed to other photographers. Views that have been identified and widely reproduced are largely those of his first decade – the oil boom years – in the Oil Creek Valley. Yet Mather was much more than an industrial photographer. His extant body of work stands today as that of a cultural historian, documenting without preju­dice or bias a slice of life that helped shape modern society. His photographs give fresh meaning to the old adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”


The John A. Mather Collection is housed in the archives of Drake Well Museum near Titusville. Of the more than ten thousand photographs in the museum’s extensive holdings, three thousand images were made by Mather. Administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, the museum features an archives and library, both of which are open by appointment to researchers and students. The Colonel, Inc., is a membership organiza­tion which supports the museum’s many activities and public history programs, and sponsors field trips and special activities. For more information, write: Drake Well Museum, R.D. 3, Titusville, PA 16354; or telephone (814) 827-2797. Individuals with disabilities who need special assistance or accommodation should call the museum in advance to discuss their needs. Persons who are deaf, hard of hearing, or speech impaired who wish to contact a hearing person via Text Telephone may use the Pennsylvania Relay Center at (800) 654-5984.


To celebrate the centennial of John A. Mather’s 1895 publication, Mather’s Historic Oil Regions of Western Pennsylvania, the Drake Well Museum’s associates group, The Colonel, Inc., has published John A. Mather: The Legacy of Pennsylvania’s Oil Region Photographer. This important new publication documenting the development of the petroleum industry in Pennsylvania features sixty representative views, critical notes on Mather’s role as a photographer, and a revised bibliography.


For Further Reading

Bates, Samuel P. Our County and Its People. Boston: W. A. Fergusson and Company, 1899.

Giddens, Paul H. Early Days of Oil: A Pictorial History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1948.

History of Venango County. Chicago: Brown, Runk and Company, 1890.

Miller, Ernest C. Oildom’s Photographic Historian. Pittsburgh: The Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, 1960.

Morrow, Dixie, Linda A. Ries, and Anne W Stewart, eds. John A. Mather: The Legacy of Pennsylvania’s Oil Region Photographer. Titusville: The Colonel, Inc., 1995.


Anne W. Stewart of Meadville is administra­tor and executive vice president of The Colonel, Inc., the associate group which enhances the programs and activities of the Drake Well Museum. She has served twenty­/our years on the Crawford County Planning Commission, is a founder of the Meadville League of Women Voters, spearheaded a historic theater restoration effort, and has been involved with Meadville’s Bicentennial celebration and its Main Street Program. She has also worked with county and city historic sites surveys. Her work with the Mather Collection, in preparation for the publication of a new book this fall, John A. Mather: The Legacy of Pennsylvania’s Oil Region Photographer, devoted exclusively to the photographer’s work, prompted her to study primary documents at Painesville, Bedford, and Twinsburg, Ohio, and to analyze records of the Crawford County Courthouse in Meadville. Her research also led her to study the diaries of Edmund Mather held by the Historical Society of Dauphin County in Harrisburg, which gave new insights to the life of John A. Mather.