- Associated Press - Friday, August 5, 2016

ST. JOHN, Kan. (AP) - Within a few months, Marion Hearn’s volunteer job will hopefully be done.

The Wichita Eagle (https://j.mp/2aFaxzh ) reports that at age 85, the president of the Stafford County Historical Society and other volunteers there have devoted the last nine years to cleaning what many consider the largest collection of photographic glass plate negatives in the nation tied to a specific location.

Hearn has helped clean some of the 30,000 negatives belonging to St. John photographer William R. Gray. There are fewer than 2,460 left to go.

The Gray family took photos in Stafford County for 76 years. Almost every family that has ever lived in Stafford County is represented in the archive.

In the process, Hearn and other museum volunteers have uncovered scenes of life from long ago - a portrait of a World War I soldier, a fiddle player, beauty queens and Buicks, babies and people who stare unblinking back at the camera, reflecting life in an early 20th-century community.

Over the past nine years, the historical society has received multiple grants from several Kansas organizations, including nearly $14,000 from the Kansas Humanities Council. Hearn and his volunteers are within $750 of completing their task. They hope private donors will step forward and help them finish.

“What drew the Humanities Council into the project from the start is that they had something really unique to their community,” said Julie Mulvihill, executive director of Kansas Humanities Council. “There was such a human story found within these glass plate negatives.

“You are seeing the history of their community and region come to life before your eyes.”

William Gray moved to St. John in 1905 from Fall River. He operated the studio until his death in 1947.

His daughter Jessie took over the business until her retirement in 1981. In 1986, she donated the glass negatives to the museum.

No one knew what they really had until Stafford County Museum curator and project director Michael Hathaway brought the 30,000 glass plate negatives up from the basement of the town’s old bank building and moved them into the museum’s library next to his office. That was in 2004.

Gray had kept 11 ledgers dutifully noting each of the 30,000 photos.

“I knew we needed to do something,” Hathaway said. “I figured if we could just get them upstairs, we could figure it out.”

In 2007, the museum was successful in obtaining its first grant from the Kansas Humanities Council.

The glass plate negatives had to be handled carefully. They are reverse photographic images transferred onto glass.

This type of photography started in the 1850s and was used until the 1930s when Kodak’s Brownie camera and film became more accessible to most families.

In the meantime, the Gray family kept taking pictures on their original equipment. Three of Gray’s children carried on the family profession - daughter Jessie took over the photography business in St. John, son Royal had a photography business in Ulysses, and Arzy worked as a chemist for Eastman Kodak, according to Hathaway.

To preserve the images and to catalog what they had, museum volunteers such as Hearn would brush the shiny or glass portion of the negative with a cotton ball dipped in distilled water. An anti-static whisk brush was then brushed along the emulsion side. The negatives were then wrapped in acid-free folders and placed in an archival box.

Nearly 6,500 of the images have been digitized and placed online through Fort Hays State University. There are tentative plans to place more in the future, Hathaway said.

“In the beginning, we didn’t know what we had on the images,” Hathaway said. “We thought it was mostly studio shots -you know, very formal shots of people. We had no idea of the variety of subjects we would find.”

Gray took photos of everything - farmers in the field, women in hammocks, street shenanigans after Halloween. Even studying how people dressed for the photos reflected greatly on how clothing trends changed through the years.

“One of the photos I recall showed two young African-American women dressed in their Sunday dresses and the emotion you felt from looking at the photo of what it meant to be family and in a community,” said Mulvihill, with the Humanities Council.

“Another was of two young women in a hammock outside their home. It was evocative and you could feel yourself there.”

By going through the negatives, Hathaway said, the museum learned more about the history of the county.

In the late 1870s and early 1880s, so many former slaves flocked to Kansas that they were nicknamed “Exodusters.” By 1910, it is estimated there were as many as 400 African Americans living in Stafford County.

Going through the negatives brought surprises, Hathaway said.

“We found out Mr. Gray took mug shots for the local sheriff and pictures of people with medical conditions for the area doctors,” he said. “He also took photos of canceled checks, legal documents, the papers of Civil War soldiers applying for pensions and pages in family Bibles.”

Hearn found a photo of himself as a child with his twin brother.

“Each negative has a number with a short description of what it is,” Hearn said. “I was going through my work sheet and I saw two little boys sitting on a stool. I got over to the ledger and it tells the photo was taken for Sylvester Hearn and shows twins Marion and Melvin, and I am one of the twins.

“We were 5 months old in 1932. That surprised me the most.”


Information from: The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, https://www.kansas.com

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