Facebook > Email > More Pinterest Print Twitter Play

A Glimpse of Texas History in 23 Photos

From images of Pancho Villa’s Villastas Bandits to snapshots of small-town waitresses, this excerpt from Proof: Photographs From Four Generations of a Texas Family captures a slice of Texas life.

By Comments

For 25 years, Byrd M. Williams IV, a photographer from Dallas, lugged around his family’s legacy. He moved hundreds of boxes full of some 350,000 photos and negatives—snapshots taken by his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather—to more than a dozen garages, attics and bedrooms, sometimes sleeping just feet from combustible nitrate film. “Nothing ever exploded,” he says, “but I did smell that smell they warned me about.”

proof book coverRelief came two years ago when the University of North Texas Libraries acquired the collection. The university then worked with UNT Press to publish Proof: Photographs From Four Generations of a Texas Family. The book, released this month, not only reveals a family’s extraordinary love for photography, it also captures 120 years of Texas history, from images of what is proclaimed to be Sam Houston’s stagecoach and Pancho Villa’s soldiers to children reenacting the Alamo on a lawn during the post-war era.

It all started in 1880, when Byrd Williams opened a hardware store in Gainesville, Texas. Postcards were popular, so he began shooting local sites to print on postcard stock and sell at his counter. His son, Byrd Williams II, began to help out and quickly fell in love with cameras. He briefly worked as a survey photographer out west and even had a stint documenting WWI recruits at Camp Bowie.

byrd williams II
Byrd Williams II, circa 1890s.

Nobody figured out how to turn the family passion into a full-time gig, though, until Byrd Williams III came along. He opened a studio and photo-processing lab in Fort Worth where his son Byrd Williams IV worked for thirty years. Between taking portraits of ballerinas and acrobats, they developed crime scene photos for the police—including those taken in downtown Dallas when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. “[The cops] came in [to the photo lab], sent the employees home, and locked the doors,” Williams says. “Dad developed the images with them standing there.”

Byrd William II and his brother Johnson exhibit their photographs in B Hall at the University of Texas in Austin. Taken by Byrd Williams, circa 1906.
Byrd Williams II and his brother Johnson exhibit their photographs in B Hall at the University of Texas in Austin. Photograph by Byrd Williams, circa 1906.

Williams IV, 64, inherited it all: the name, the love, and the vast collection. By high school he was rummaging through the negatives to make prints—something he kept doing over the years, even as he pursued his own work documenting televangelists and gun owners around the state. “I just wanted to see what was in ‘em,” he says. “What people had on the shelves, what they hung on the walls, what the shops looked like.”

That’s the joy of perusing Proof. The images are a reverential window into the lives of Texans otherwise forgotten—and they may have actually been forgotten had UNT not called. Williams’s sons aren’t interested in photography, and he became paranoid they might throw out all those boxes after he dies. It’s a relief to know the collection is safe, Williams says, even if it means driving to Denton to see it. “I grieved a little,” he added. “I had to get used to not having it at my fingertips.”

All photos courtesy University of North Texas Special Collections, Byrd Williams Family Photography Collection.

028-people-hunters-with-kill
Hunters with kill, near Big Bend. Photograph by Byrd Williams II.

 

010-postcard-byrd-williams-and-sons-hardware-1885
Byrd Williams and Sons Hardware, Drygoods and General Store, Gainesville, Texas. Photograph by Byrd Williams, circa 1885.

 

aro769_box1_sam_houston_wagon
Postcard of what was claimed to be Sam Houston’s private stagecoach, place unknown. Photograph by Byrd Williams, circa 1890s.

 

Postcard of water donkeys in El Paso, Texas. Taken by Byrd William or Byrd William II, circa 1907.
Postcard of water donkeys in El Paso, Texas. Photograph by Byrd William or Byrd Williams II, circa 1907.
047-violence-and-religion-byrd-pancho-bandits
Pancho Villa’s Villastas Bandits, south of El Paso near the Rio Grande. Photograph by Byrd Williams II, 1915.
019-great-depression-burlesque
Burlesque near Southside downtown in an area of Fort Worth that was known as Hell’s Half Acre. Photograph by Byrd Williams III, 1937.
042-night-train-and-conductor
Train and conductor at the T&P Train Station, 221 West Lancaster Avenue, Fort Worth, Texas. Photograph by Byrd Williams III, 1938.
A view from inside the Westcliff, Fort Worth, photography studio of Byrd William III.
A view from inside the Westcliff, Fort Worth, photography studio of Byrd Williams III.
Girls from a local dance school in Fort Worth. Taken by Byrd William III, 1949.
Girls from a local dance school in Fort Worth. Photograph by Byrd Williams III, 1949.
Waitress at Ernie’s Hamburger Stand in Fort Worth. Taken by Byrd William III, 1955.
Waitress at Ernie’s Hamburger Stand in Fort Worth. Photograph by Byrd Williams III, 1955.
Alamo reenactment in Fort Worth. Taken by Byrd William IV, 1960.
Alamo reenactment in Fort Worth. Photograph by Byrd Williams IV, 1960.
A photo montage made by Byrd M. Williams IV showing Byrd Williams III, left, at 24 years old and Byrd IV, right, at 59 years old.
A photo montage made by Byrd M. Williams IV showing Byrd Williams III, left, at 24 years old and Byrd IV, right, at 59 years old.
Left: A street in Fort Worth photographed in 1980 by Byrd Williams IV. Right: The same street in 2015.
Left: A street in Fort Worth photographed in 1980 by Byrd Williams IV. Right: The same street in 2015.
A domino parlor near Era, Texas. Photograph by Byrd William IV, 1981.
A domino parlor near Era, Texas. Photograph by Byrd Williams IV, 1981.

 

Flood at Lake Weatherford. Photograph by Byrd Williams IV, 1981.
Flood at Lake Weatherford. Photograph by Byrd Williams IV, 1981.
Flood at Lake Weatherford. Photograph by Byrd William IV, 1981.
Drought at Lake Weatherford. Photograph by Byrd Williams IV, 1981.

 

A war veteran with wife in Fort Worth, Texas, at Ripy and Jones Streets. Photograph by Byrd William IV, 1982.
A war veteran with wife in Fort Worth, Texas, at Ripy and Jones Streets. Photograph by Byrd Williams IV, 1982.
Gunshot victim. Photograph by Byrd Williams IV, 1986.
Gunshot victim. Photograph by Byrd Williams IV, 1986.
Knockout at Gorman’s Saturday Night Club fight, 100 East Cannon Street, Fort Worth. Photograph by Byrd Williams IV, 1986.
Knockout at Gorman’s Saturday Night Club fight, 100 East Cannon Street, Fort Worth. Photograph by Byrd Williams IV, 1986.
Disagreement at Brims Tavern on Riverside Drive in Fort Worth. Photograph by Byrd Williams IV, 1986.
Disagreement at Brims Tavern on Riverside Drive in Fort Worth. Photograph by Byrd Williams IV, 1986.
The laying of hands in quest of the Holy Spirit, in Euless, Texas. Photograph by Byrd Williams IV, 1986.
The laying of hands in quest of the Holy Spirit, in Euless, Texas. Photograph by Byrd Williams IV, 1986.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Related Content