Effingham, Ill., July 24 1903
Editor Herald: - I am much pleased with the college here. It is devoted exclusively to teaching photography in all its branches. There are students here from all over the world. A young man arrived from Spain ... we also have one student from Sweden, one from London, Eng., two Japanese, one from Ontario and two from British Columbia. Most of the others are from different parts of the States. Altogether there are about eighty-five in attendance. Since coming I have taken up the unrivaled "Carbon Process", the prints of which are considered the art gems of photography.
When I return to Cranbrook we will remodel our studio and have a machine by which we will be able to take pictures in the evening. I won't be sorry to get back to Cranbrook with its gorgeously sun-set-tinted background of mountains.
Very Respectfully Yours,
The above, an excerpt from a letter written by a student of photography in the year 1903 is in itself worthy of note but what is truly remarkable is that it was written by Mrs. Olive Prest, a local widowed mother and one of only a handful of professional female photographers in the entire country at the time. Her husband, William Archie Prest, Cranbrook's first photographer, died in 1902, and rather than close the business Mrs. Prest made the decision to carry on with the aid of her son Cecil, a local hardware store employee. It was, to say the least, a bold and daring move for a woman of the time.
W.A Prest appeared in town in January, 1899. Born in 1850 in Guelph, Ont., he arrived from Portage la Prairie, Man., having been engaged in the stationery and newspaper business. Upon reaching Cranbrook he decided to try his hand at photography and secured quarters for the town's first photo gallery in a room in the original Post Office/Beattie Drug building on the southeast corner of Baker St. and 8th Ave. Mrs. Prest and their son Cecil arrived in March and by early April Prest & Co was up and clicking.
W.A. spent much time travelling throughout South East Kootenay securing photographic views of the many wonders of the area. His many photos and montages of Cranbrook and district businesses, residences and people solidified, as we now know, have ensured his place in the local history books.
In February, 1900, work began on a new building on Baker St., three doors east of the original location. Prest & Co. and W.T Reid Dry Goods held the ground floor with living quarters for the Prest family on the second.
Over the course of the next two years W.A. Prest continued his visual and varied documentation with photos of the local Strathcona Horse Regiment embarking for the Boer War, city panoramas taken from the original Moir Hill, portraits of numerous prominent citizens and indigenous peoples, mining activity on Perry Creek, the Marysville smelter and countless other subjects. Business was very good and soon Prest & Co studios appeared in communities throughout the East Kootenay.
In October 1902, W.A. fell ill with a brain hemorrhage and died one month later. As he lay on his deathbed Mrs. Prest traveled to nearby towns to look after the photo galleries and continued to run the studio throughout the busy Christmas season. In January, 1903, Olive travelled to the school of photography in Illinois in order to "perfect herself in some of the finer details of the work." When she returned she reopened the studio and carried on in her late husband's stead.
Cecil, although remaining employed at the hardware store, also took an interest in the art, travelling to major photographic studios in the east and capturing local subjects on film as time permitted.
March of 1904 saw Cecil announce plans for a new residence on Baker Hill. The house was finished in November, 1904, to much praise and became home for mother and son for the next three years. The Prest Photo Co. also relocated to the second story of the Godderies Block (now Interior Sports) on Baker Street. The original establishment was sold and demolished.
Mrs. Prest continued to run the studio, claiming: "If you have beauty we will take it, if you have none we will make it," offering everything from photo portraits and imported art work to local photographic views printed on pillow cases.
Cecil too, did well for himself. In November, 1905, he became the first City Clerk of the newly incorporated City of Cranbrook, a position he held until September, 1906, when he resigned in order to take up the hardware business in Virden, Manitoba. His mother continued with Prest & Co. until June at which point she sold the business to newly arrived photographer R.J. Binning and left to join her son and his wife in Virden.
The Prest family, though only in Cranbrook for eight years, compiled a vital photographic account of the East Kootenay and its people, a legacy that constantly re-emerges in print. Sadly, though somehow not surprisingly, it would appear they left us no photographs of themselves.
Endnote: William Archie Prest is buried in the Old General Cemetery alongside his sister Emily, who moved to Cranbrook in 1903 and died in 1915. At the time she was living next door to the former Prest home in the residence of Mr. and Mrs. W.H. Wilson. The funeral was held from there.