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Wendy M. Levy/The Commons

Bob and Janet LeBlond and Charlie Marchant examine the copy of Porter Thayer’s photo journal.

Town and Village

Riddles from the past

In Wardsboro, a group of friends gathers weekly to unravel the mysteries of local historical photographs

To make a donation to the group’s photography project, or to lend or give the group vintage Windham County photographs, contact them at the Wardsboro History Group at P.O. Box 33, Wardsboro, VT 05355. All donations are tax-deductible under the history group’s 501(c)3 nonprofit tax ID.

WARDSBORO—Friends often find time to meet up for a variety of leisure activities: dinner parties, poker games, mahjong. Few of these groups exist to preserve history.

But every Wednesday for the past 24 years, a group of friends have been meeting at Bob and Janet LeBlond’s Wardsboro home to do just that.

The group, which has no official name, views vintage photographs taken in and around Windham County — many of them from the early decades of mass-market photography — and attempts to identify their subjects’ locations.

Through their interest in local history, the group is helping to preserve it.

They make prints of the photos and give them to such entities as local historical societies, libraries, magazine and book publishers, and individuals doing research. They digitize the photos, saving them on hard drives and data disks. The group also presents three or four slide shows each year.

Pics and pie

The weekly festivities begin around the kitchen table with what Bob calls “show-and-tell — what did we find this week that’s new?”

The LeBlonds and their friends — Carol Bessette, Lester Dunklee, Jan Hall, Dan Hescock, Charles Marchant, and Jane Robinson — look at whatever collection of photographs or postcards they received in the previous week, name what they can, and set aside the rest for the coming week’s detective work.

“Charlie brings a lot of photographs we can’t identify,” Bob said.

On a recent week, Marchant brought a few stereographic cards depicting early-1900s scenes from Cavendish and Chester. On a hunt for vintage Windham County postcards, he had found them in an antique store in Duluth, Minn.

For the current collection the group is studying, they don’t even have photographs, only glass negatives. Part of the fun is developing the photos in Bob’s basement darkroom.

Between “show-and-tell” and darkroom time comes a crucial part of the weekly event.

“There’s always some sweet stuff we have to get rid of,” Bob told a visitor on a recent Wednesday as he and Janet scooped out ice cream on top of slices of fresh blueberry pie Bessette baked for the occasion.

Dessert is always served in potluck fashion, explained Dunklee, noting there are no baking assignments, but the LeBlonds usually have ice cream and Marchant often brings cookies. “Sometimes I bake something,” Dunklee said.

The Porter Thayer collection

The current collection the group is studying comes from Bill Thayer, whose grandfather, Porter Thayer, was a Williamsville farmer who took thousands of photographs from 1906 to around 1920 in every Windham County town within 25 miles of his Newfane home.

The elder Thayer’s efforts coincided with the postcard craze of the early 1900s, allowing him to establish a successful photography business. His subject matter ranged from rural landscapes of agrarian life to posed portraits in parlor rooms.

The Windham County Historical Society in Newfane has a Porter Thayer exhibit, including some of his photography equipment.

The University of Vermont’s Center for Digital Initiatives amassed a collection of 1,300 of his pictures. They are available online at cdi.uvm.edu and at Brattleboro’s Brooks Memorial Library.

“We found out the 1,300 wasn’t the whole collection [of Porter’s photographs] — he took closer to 4,500,” Bob said.

Bill still has hundreds of boxes of 4-by-5-inch glass negatives, and he loans them, a few boxes at a time, to the group to print, identify, and catalogue.

Each box has a number and date written on it, “but we don’t get them in order,” Marchant said.

Porter kept a ledger, and Bill gave the group a photocopied version of it, but the group discovered the numbers on the boxes don’t always match the numbers written in the journal.

“The record keeping and documentation is suspect,” Marchant said.

“Bill Thayer said when his granddad was in the last stages of his life he wanted to get the boxes in order,” Bob said, and “he sort of reshuffled the deck,” with little regard for the numerical filing system. “He put all the photos of bridges together,” for example, Bob said.

Some of Porter’s collection didn’t survive him.

“He said, ‘Some people will want copies and it’ll be a burden to look for them,’” Bob said, “so they took them to the dump.”

Porter’s second wife, Lillian, told Janet that “he smashed a bunch of negatives because he didn’t want [her] to be bothered."

Playing detective

Once the group goes through the week’s pile of photographs and identifies what they can, the rest get developed, copied, and disseminated to each member for further investigation.

If a picture is confirmed as taken in a particular town, the members living in that town will take a copy for research. “For example, Dummerston photos go to Carol and Lester,” Marchant said.

“Sometimes we drive around and look at this stuff,” Marchant said, adding the Porter Thayer collection is a little easier than others the group has studied because “luckily he didn’t go very far."

“Driving around and looking at stuff” seems to work well when the group seeks to identify locations depicted in old photographs.

“A photograph is almost like an invitation onto private property,” Bob said.

Many times he arrives at a house with a century-old photograph that was likely taken there. When the person answering the door sees the old picture and Bob says to them, “‘I think this photo is of your house,’ right away you’re invited in."

Town clerks’ offices are also good sources, Marchant said.

“We ask around and they usually know who everyone in town is, and they can redirect us” to the right person, he said. “They start calling around on the phone,” he said. Town clerks are especially helpful because local historical societies don’t generally have extensive visiting hours, Marchant said.

By seeking the subjects of old photographs, occasionally the group’s members find even more photographs.

During investigative inquiries at town offices and other places, someone almost inevitably says to the visiting group member, “I’ve got a bunch of old photographs in my attic. Would you like to see them?” Marchant said.

“It’s an ice-breaker,” especially when people are hesitant to show their pictures to just anyone, Marchant said. “When they find out what we’re doing, they invite us in and give us boxes of photos,” he said.

Welcome surprises

“We had a picture of a young lady sitting in an automobile from about the 1920s,” Bob said. “She was pretty, in her mid-20s ... and she had a young child, about three years old, standing on the seat. She was beaming. We didn’t know who it was."

During one of the group’s slide show presentations, this one in Londonderry, they asked if anyone recognized the woman.

“Sometimes nobody speaks up, maybe because they don’t want to get it wrong, but after a while a man said, ‘That’s my mother. And that’s me!’” Bob said.

The man said this photo depicted the first time his mother had sat behind the wheel of a car.

“Another time, we were looking at negatives in the darkroom, and we found photos of Janet’s great-grandparents. We took them to Janet’s mother,” Bob said.

“We also found my parents’ wedding photos,” Janet said.

Paying for it

Bob LeBlond and Dan Hescock created a 125-page photo book, “Wardsboro, VT — Exposing the Past,” using many pictures they discovered by looking at old collections, and donated it to the Friends of the Wardsboro Library to sell. The book is in its second printing.

The Wednesday night group members work on this project because they love it. They donate their time.

But photo-developing supplies cost money.

“People ask us, ‘How do you pay for this?’” Marchant said.

The Windham Foundation gave the group a grant a few years ago to help pay for some of the supplies, Marchant said.

Most of the group’s funding comes from donations or in-kind contributions, such as the acid-free envelopes that store the glass negatives. The group offers prints of the photographs to grant foundations.

“But we’re about broke,” Hescock said.

“We have to come up with another source” for funding, Marchant added. “We need more [photo] paper!”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #375 (Wednesday, September 21, 2016). This story appeared on page C1.

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