March 12, 1915 to December 6, 1980

Charlton County Herald

April 7, 2012

If you lived in Folkston from the late 1940s up until around 1980 and you had a professional photograph taken, odds are that it was taken by Mrs. Idell Conner.

Born Leoniah Idell Walker in Brookhaven, Mississippi on March 12, 1915, she moved with her family to her mother’s hometown of Bainbridge, Georgia when she was about five years old. At the start of World War Two Idell, her mother and her older brother, Alton, moved to Marietta, when Idell went to work in the sheet metal shop at Lockheed-Martin as a “Rosie the Riveter”, building B-17 aircraft. Fulfilling her mother’s desire to see California, Idell moved them all to Los Angeles, where she went to work as a sheet metal worker for the Northrop Corporation building P-61 “Black Widow” aircraft.

Thanks to the beneficence of a local philanthropist in Los Angeles, Idell attended technical school in her spare time, studying film development; however, when one of her instructors pointed out that photographers made better money, Idell began taking photography courses and discovered her dream job. Photography became her hobby, and her career, for the rest of her life.

In 1946, Idell and her family decided to move to Miami, Florida to open a photography studio. During a side trip to Folkston to visit her sister Vyru McDonald and her family, Idell was convinced to remain in Folkston and open her photograph studio here as the town was growing and it had no photographer. Giving it a try, Idell began taking photographs at Vyru’s home and business was good from day one. Her first appointment was with Ruth Allen and it was to take photos of her young son, Bill.

In December of 1947, Idell moved her studio to the “Theo Dinkins Building” at Main and First Streets. This building also housed the new Topper Theatre and the local telephone exchange and Alton Walker often recalled the telephone operator, Miss. Nettie Keene, sticking her head out of the upstairs window to holler at the volunteer firemen to get them to respond to calls.

Idell became acquainted with a number of local citizens and one new friend set her up on a blind date with a young chicken farmer from the Uptonville community named J.P. Conner. Not knowing exactly what to expect, Idell was pleasantly surprised when she opened the door and met the tall, handsome young man. Married in February of 1951, Idell’s dream of having a family of two boys and two girls…in that order…was realized when she and J.P. were blessed with Pete in 1952, Stewart in 1953, Crystal in 1955, and Kelly in 1958.

J.P. owned and operated his own Sunoco service station at the corner of Bowery Lane and U.S. One up until his retirement in 1976. In his spare time J.P. was an avid horseman, a fixture at the area horse shows for many years along with his quarter horse, “Big Red.”

In 1957, J.P.’s brother Cecil Conner, built a new house and gave his old house to J.P. and Idell. Moving it up to some land they owned on North Third Street, they expanded and remodeled it, adding a separate building on the side of it for Idell’s studio. With her brother Alton assisting her with the negative processing, Idell changed the name of the business to Conner-Walker Studio and continued her burgeoning business.

On prom night, all of the local kids would come to her studio to have their pictures taken and it was a sight to see. The girls would be in their full prom dresses with the hoops and each one was posed ever so carefully so that their dresses would look even more beautiful. The bow ties of the boys were checked to make sure they were straight and that not a hair was out of place and then, it was “On the count of three, smile” and “let’s get one more to make sure we got a good one.” On prom night, Idell’s children would sit by the door and watch all of the older kids get their pictures taken. When Kelly was about four or five, she would sit close enough so that she could reach out and touch the prom dresses because she thought they were so pretty.

In Folkston’s heyday as “the marriage capital of the world,” Idell would be called regularly to go up to the courthouse to take pictures of the newlyweds. She would also regularly be called to go to the funeral home to take pictures of the recently departed and often recounted the one time when she took a picture of a wife and her deceased husband. The wife stated, “This is the last time I can have my picture taken with my husband,” so Idell fulfilled her request. Idell became so sought after as a wedding photographer that couples would often adjust their schedules to hers just so she could photograph the ceremony. Although known primarily for her photography skills Idell was also quite talented at photo restoration. She could take a worn photograph which might have only a face or a portion of a face and paint in the entire face and finish the photo with restored clothing and background. Idell’s talent brought love and comfort to many. A mother had taken her young daughter to Idell for a portrait and not long afterwards, the little girl passed away. Sometime later, Idell delivered a large, hand-painted (called “tinted” in those days) portrait she had done of the girl to the grieving mother.

J.P. was well known for his love of horses and he wanted Idell to ride as well, however, try as he might, he could not get her on a horse. He and his friend, Hoyt DeLoach, came up with the idea of setting up a step ladder beside an old horse of Hoyt’s, which was so old that it could barely walk, much less run. They managed to convince Idell to get on the horse, but she didn’t ride it. She just sat on it. The next day, the old horse died and Hoyt kidded her about “killing his horse.” That ended her horse-riding days as she never got up on another horse again.

Idell once attended a course designed to help boost sales of photos. The instructor explained that the way to sell photos was to have them enlarged before the client came to view them and if they acted as if they did not want to buy them, to pretend to rip them up as this would entice the client to buy the pictures. Idell left the class and came home, vowing that she would never stoop to such methods. She felt that her work would stand on its own and that if they wanted the photos, they would buy them.

Idell loved her profession with a passion. She was always taking pictures and on the last Christmas morning that she and J.P. were alive, she shared her love with her family, making the rounds to family member’s homes to photograph them. It was not work for Idell. The two things she loved most were her family and her photography.

J.P. and Idell lived in that same house and led a good life, raising four children and taking care of her older brother, Alton. In January of 1980 J.P. passed away and Idell began to have health problems if her own, but she still continued to work. On the Saturday before she was scheduled to go into the hospital for some surgery, she photographed three different weddings. She remarked that she had been ready to do another one had it been booked. Those were the last three jobs she completed. Eleven months after J.P. died, Idell passed away on December 6, 1980.

After Idell passed away, Crystal and Alton went to Jacksonville to Riverside Camera to pick up photos for some of Idell’s customers. When told of Idell’s passing, the owner called them into his office to offer his condolences and went on to say that her business with him was so large that he was unsure how he was going to manage without it. To illustrate his point, he added, “She pays my light bill every month.”

Often told what a wonderful photographer her mother was, Chrystal finally realized the full impact several years after Idell’s death. Crystal had gone to St. Marys to see Mary Shep Prescott after Mary Shep’s husband, Freddy, had passed away. They had endured some hard years as both his and her health had been deteriorating. When Crystal walked into the funeral home, she immediately noticed four large prom pictures, all elegantly framed together. Mary Shep and Freddy had gone to the prom four years in a row and in each picture, they were dressed differently. Each picture had a different pose, careful to show the detail of Mary Shep’s beautiful dresses and Freddy’s tuxedos. Each picture had been painted by Idell. The pictures looked as if they were taken just the day before, preserving Mary Shep and Freddy’s youth in such a beautiful way. Chrystal thought they were the most handsome couple she’d ever seen and then, she realized her mother’s gift. It was as if Idell’s presence was still with everyone through the pictures she had made.

Perhaps you have some treasured family photos taken by Mrs. Idell? Glance at them and remember her on what would have been her 97th birthday this March 12th.


Charlton  County Archives