Sterling’s Renaissance Woman

Mother dog and Williams cousins have their hands full with all the pups.

Born in 1883 in Sterling, Williams was introduced to the camera while attending Oswego Normal School (today, SUNY Oswego). Back home, she became “the lady who took pictures.” Her early photographs of Sterling and Fair Haven help bring the area’s history to life.

One of the four children of William and Ida Williams, Edna graduated from high school and went on to Oswego to become a teacher, following in the footsteps of her aunt, Eva Green. Edna taught for a year before giving it up. While most women of her era were marrying and settling down, Edna had other plans.

She worked for a number of years as a secretary at the Sterling Center Cheese Works, but Edna preferred being outside. By horse drawn buggy, bicycle and later by car, she traipsed through the countryside taking pictures with her big box cameras, switching to smaller ones later. One of her earliest cameras, a Grundlack Corona VII 4- by 5-inch, is on display at the Sterling Museum.

As her reputation as a photographer grew, people in the community would call on her to take photos of them with their prized possessions – a fine workhorse perhaps, or a prize-winning milking cow. A new-fangled automobile.

Her pictures captured farmers working their fields, children at play and the sailing vessels delivering and picking up from the Fair Haven Railroad lines. Coal shipping, fruit-farm shipping, and ice block refrigeration may be things of the past, but thanks to Edna Williams’ photography, we can enjoy having a look at them today. Her photos are loaded with historic perspective and human interest, thanks to her strong sense of composition. She seldom grouped people together for a posed photo, instead preferring to catch children at play and adults relaxing, often in the natural beauty of the countryside.

Many of her photos of the Fair Haven Beach State Park and the boating activity around the channel, bay and Lake Ontario were made into postcards. Some were even sent off to Germany to be painted. Proceeds from the sale of those cards helped supplement her income. Edna occasionally won photo contests run by the Syracuse newspapers, the prize being $10 for each photo used in the Sunday editions.

Unfortunately, her family had little regard for the photos she took. Her nephew George Green (revealed to be her son after her death) remembers that he and his cousins used her glass negatives many times for target practice.

A special thanks to my husband Phil MacArthur for his many hours spent converting these glass and celluloid negative


by June MacArthur