When they invent the Time Machine, I’m going to go back to the 1920s and talk to photographer John Knoll. First, I want to
compliment him on his stunning photographs of Manchester during the early part of the 20th century.
I want to find out what inspired him to take thousands of photos all over town, as well as Bolton, Coventry, and other towns. How did he get interested in photography, and how did he perfect his technique? We know from the angle of some of his photos that he didn’t mind climbing up a tall hill to get just the right perspective. And he must have liked people, because many of his photos have people in them.
John Knoll came to Manchester with his parents in 1893, from the Moravian town of Reschen, which changed countries after various wars, as did many towns in central Europe – his hometown was at times a part of Austrian Silesia, Germany, and Czechoslovakia. According to his grandnephew Frank Grimason, John spoke with a German accent his whole life.
John lived on School Street with his mother, and although he never married, his sisters did, so John had a number of nieces and nephews, whom he photographed.
In 1915, John won first prize in a Hartford Courant photography contest. The photo, “Back in the Wilds” shows a
shack in the woods with a couple of men, who are maybe making maple syrup, or just enjoying the outdoors. John continued to
enter Courant photo contests, and won prizes and honorable mentions with a total of ten more photos from 1924
The photos show elk at Forest Park in Springfield, a raccoon, birds, squirrels, and “Nothing Like the Old Corncob Pipe,” a
photo of his dog with a pipe in his mouth and a hat on his head. John was fond of setting up “staged” scenes. I can just
imagine him calling a bunch of his friends to come out and participate in humorous poses.
He also photographed sporting events, Memorial Day ceremonies, fires, parades, construction, and school kids. He took pictures of neighbors and tried to make this into a profitable business, but as his grandnephew said, John was “too kind, gentle, and trusting,” when it came to business. John tried developing his own film, but also brought it to Magnell Drug Store, downtown Main Street. Some of the photos were made into postcards, and you can still buy these on the Internet.
John opened a small grocery store at 165 School Street about 1918, but he was often out photographing, and his mother
would take care of the store for him. The store sold food, candy, tea, coffee, and tobacco. He took many photos of the
store, which operated until about 1935. The store got into trouble and closed during the Great Depression, and, according
to archival Hartford Courant articles, John owed money to grocery and tobacco suppliers. Of course, during the
Depression, many storekeepers allowed their customers to build up a tab, and by extending credit to their customers, they
couldn’t pay their own bills. A few other businesses tried to make a go of it at the store, including a roofer, bookkeeper,
and dance instructor. But eventually the store was torn down.
Grandnephew Frank Grimason said that after John lost the store, he stopped going out on photographic rambles, although we have a record of his late 1940s pictures of school students.
John stored a lot of his belongings in the attic and cellar of his sister’s house at 194 School Street, where he lived after his mother died. During the 1950s, John worked at Anderson’s Greenhouse on Eldridge Street.
Frank said he “always enjoyed talking with John about the old days, and about his equipment and photography expeditions.”
John’s niece, Anna Grimason, moved back to 194 School Street in the late 1940s, and came to own the house in 1959, and although some of the Knoll negative
film was lost, much of the memorabilia was saved, including calendars and other items from the store, an album of postcards,
and furniture. The long narrow sign from John’s store, which had become a shelf for cans of paint, eventually made its way
to the Manchester Historical Society, where it graces a wall at the Old Manchester Museum on Cedar Street.
After the store closed, John would go for long walks, but he rarely took up his camera again. We are fortunate that he took the fabulous array of photos that are still in existence. You will see copies of them at restaurants, including the Sinnamon Shop on Oak Street, in several books published by the Manchester Historical Society, and some day you will see an exhibit at the new museum of the Historical Society, in the History Center at 175 Pine Street. We are grateful to the Knoll and Grimason families for preserving this pictorial legacy.
Below is a group of photographs from John Knoll's collection. Click each icon to see an enlarged view of the
picture, along with explanatory information.