Nora Witzel: Trailblazing Photographer and Inspiring Individualist 

By Meghan E. Gattignolo 

Lenora Witzel, or Nora as she was known throughout her life, was a Clarksville native and local photographer who was a remarkable woman of her generation. She was born well before the turn of the century, so Nora witnessed miraculous changes in daily life. She would have seen the Customs House built and open as a spectacular new post office. Nora would also have been aware of Mrs. Runyon’s activities, and probably applauded them. Nora was an unmistakable character herself, well-known during her lifetime for bucking gender norms and generally being different. Read on for three reasons why Nora is a beloved Clarksville icon worth learning more about.  

Laurin Bryan Askew with granddaughter Barbara
Nora Witzel, photographer, ca. 1907
Archives Collection, Customs House Museum & Cultural Center

Woman in an overcoat with a fur hat
Nora Witzel, photographer, ca. 1910
Archives Collection, Customs House Museum & Cultural Center

View of Cunningham Bridge during 1927 flood
Nora Witzel, photographer, 1927
Archives Collection, Customs House Museum & Cultural Center

Prolific Photographer 

Nora is most beloved and remembered today for her photography. A business owner of some repute, Nora’s studio on Franklin Street was above a clothing store, within the same walls of what is now the Blackhorse Pub & Brewery. Nora’s business was family portraits. Those who remember sitting in Nora’s studio to have their picture taken primarily remember her rigid presence as she commanded smiles from her subjects.  

More than a studio portrait photographer, Nora’s great accomplishments lie in her stunning and unique pictures of Clarksville, particularly in the decades following World War I. Photographs of downtown buildings, warehouses that no longer exist and elevated views of the banks of the Cumberland River are among her best. Thanks to Nora, we can now appreciate a wonderful collection of pre-World War II pictures of Clarksville. Nora’s negatives and camera equipment were sold at auction before her death, and subsequently donated to the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center. Take a look through some of her photographs, available to browse on our website.  

Lenora “Nora” Witzel (right) and her mother, Margaret Witzel
Studio Grand Photographer, ca. 1900
Archives Collection, Customs House Museum & Cultural Center

Unique Persona 

Recognized by her fashion sense – or more aptly, her complete disregard for it – Nora had her own special dark blue suits made to enhance her work. She valued practicality above all else, and her sturdy suits assisted her movements as she climbed up train trestles to get the best view of Clarksville vistas. Nora was made of tougher stuff than the typical Clarksville woman.  

This picture of her – a stern and solid woman lacking in flippant feminine flair – was what most people knew. Nora never married or followed the expectations of women during the first half of the 20th century. She was unapologetically herself, and fought for what mattered to her. When her family home was condemned by the city and slated for demolition when she was nearly 80 years old, Nora fought to save it. Failing that, Nora was still able to negotiate almost double the price originally offered to her from the city. She was able to buy a new home for herself and her cousin Kate. 

Nora Witzel with dog, Nettie
Photo by Maegan Collins

A Stunning Landmark  

Nora is quite literally a Clarksville landmark! In 2007, Andrea Lugar of Lugar Foundry was commissioned to cast a bronze statue of Nora and her little dog, Nettie. They joined a steadily growing collection of bronze characters around downtown, in the image of especially noteworthy Clarksville residents. Fittingly, Nora’s statue is a favorite photo op for Clarksville’s younger residents. It’s not uncommon to see someone stop and capture a sweet moment with a child inspecting Nora’s camera or petting her dog. You can visit them any day of the week on the Third Street side of the Courthouse, a short walk from the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center. 

Nora Witzel is an inspiring figure to remember during Women’s History Month. For those of us who seek to live a life of passion, rather than of obligation, Nora makes a wonderful role model. She’s an example of someone who lived according to her own rules and scoffed when others tried to shame her for being herself. Celebrate Nora by visiting her statue and snapping some pictures of what inspires you here in Clarksville. You can also enjoy Nora’s work by checking out the Museum’s searchable database

Meghan E. Gattignolo is a freelance writer and longtime Clarksville, TN resident. She loves to obsess about historical subjects and annoy her family daily with unsolicited random facts. Meghan holds a B.A. in History from Austin Peay State University and lives in town with her husband and two daughters. 

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