Wardsboro Photo Group members tell the story of when they shared this image during a presentation in Londonderry, and one elderly man in the audience identified himself as the child in the photo. The group travels to various towns in an ongoing effort to crowdsource identifications for the photos in their archive the old-fashioned way (which also includes dessert).
Courtesy of Wardsboro Photo Group
Wardsboro Photo Group members tell the story of when they shared this image during a presentation in Londonderry, and one elderly man in the audience identified himself as the child in the photo. The group travels to various towns in an ongoing effort to crowdsource identifications for the photos in their archive the old-fashioned way (which also includes dessert).

Exposing the past

The Wardsboro Photo Group has unearthed stories of people and places from long-forgotten historic photos for more than three decades

In one member's home on a cold February night, six members of the Wardsboro Photo Group, all accomplished photographers and historians, pass around a set of photographs, organized by number in large plastic boxes designed to keep the art safe and dry.

They have met at this table every Wednesday night for more than 30 years.

For years, Chuck Fish, active in photography for the Dummerston Historical Society, has followed the efforts of the photo group, which is associated with the Wardsboro History Group, and sings their praises.

"Much of the visual record of the past is locked up in the vast number of glass plate negatives that have miraculously survived. Locked up, until these dedicated workers digitize the images for posterity," he says.

Sometimes called "wet plate negatives," glass plates were invented in 1851 and were used in early photography until the 1880s.

Fish is grateful for the group's work.

"Thanks to them, we now see people, scenes, and buildings that are no longer here or have significantly changed," he says.

Discovering a past preserved on glass

"Way back when," says group member and photographer, Bob LeBlond, "I was taking pictures in the village in Wardsboro of Mr. Cliff Bills. I went into his house, I Iooked at the photos that he had, and I received permission to copy them."

Shortly thereafter, group member Charlie Marchant, a retired history teacher and president of the Townshend Historical Society, told LeBlond about a man in Windham who also had some old glass plates.

That man, George Havell, was reluctant to loan any of his photos because others had borrowed some and hadn't returned them.

LeBlond disarmed him by recognizing an especially beautiful bellows camera - a Deardorff -standing in the room.

"As soon as I saw it, I knew what it was and that gained his trust. It's like seeing a Rolls Royce in a Chevy parking lot," remembers LeBlond.

Havell, also an accomplished photographer and historian, was impressed. The two men bonded right away.

"He had tons of old photos," recalls LeBlond. "Once he realized how serious we were about printing them, we left his house with about 1,000 old glass plates."

"That's smooth talking right there, isn't it?" Dummerstonian Lester Dunklee, another member of the group, says with a mischievous smile and a chuckle.

But the comment is made in good fun because this group is serious about history, photography, and its preservation.

They are also very much aware that Havel had salvaged his glass plates back in the 1950s, when many people were discarding such historical artifacts as useless or of little value.

All Havell asked in return was printed copies of the plates, as he had never seen the photographs in positive form. More than 900 printed copies of photos were returned to him by the group.

Eventually, he put the plates on loan and finally gave them outright before he died in 1999. The plates are now housed at the Historical Society of Windham County.

"That was back in 1992," adds Marchant. "I have the whole list of Havell glass plates. We make copies of every photo that we process, catalog them, and when we know their history, add descriptions."

Not all owners of old plates and negatives are as generous as Havell was.

"We've heard of some glass plates that have gone to the dump," member Dan Hescock says, shaking his head in disbelief. "And then there are other people who have told us that they have a large collection, but no one is going to see them. Why?" he asks rhetorically.

"Most often, we process the photos and give them back to their owners," says member Jan Hull. It's a win-win: the owner gets a copy of the image back with the original historic plate. Sometimes the Wardsboro Photo Group helps the owner find a home for the negatives if they wish to pass them along, but the majority of the time, the owner keeps them.

Hescock encourages people who have glass plates to get in touch with the group.

"And don't drop them!" he says with a laugh. Everyone joins in laughter with him.

From analog to digital

Through the years, the group has processed and cataloged upwards of 30,000 to 40,000 historical photos. The group worked in the darkroom, often together, until Covid hit in 2020.

At that point, they began the process of digitizing the photos, which they could do while navigating safety guidelines during the global pandemic.

Currently, their hard drives hold around 120,000 photos, all preserved, labeled, and logged.

Their collections are shared with the University of Vermont's Fleming Museum of Art, and some local historical societies have added the Wardsboro Photo Group's work to their online collections and to their Facebook and other social media offerings.

"We started out putting our money together to pay for the chemicals, paper, and supplies. Fortunately, we have been lucky to receive two grants from the Windham Foundation," LeBlond says.

"Now we are working digitally. Our grant helps us purchase thumb drives, disks, storage containers, and any other necessary supplies," he says.

Once the pictures have been digitized, the files go to Hescock, who retouches any flaws in the pictures and adjusts the lighting if necessary.

"If there is damage to the photo, we try to repair it," says Hescock.

"We're careful to keep the details there and not change the picture," he adds.

Then the photos are put into the collection with the originals.

"We include a description of what the photo is, and that number travels with that photograph. That way, if I want to do a search of, say, horses, 1,500 pictures of horses come up within the search parameters. Digitally, it's so much easier this way," says LeBlond.

What about the pictures that can't be identified?

Each member of the group brings their own historical knowledge to the table.

LeBlond points out, "If it's a piece of machinery, Lester Dunklee, Dan Hescock, and I are all over it. If it's a cemetery, or from the Civil War era, Charlie Marchant often has some knowledge to pass along. Jan Hull is one of the listers in town and has done tons of research for us, as have Janet LeBlond and Jane Robinson."

Solving problems, identifying photos, and dessert

Each meeting follows a relaxed and predictable schedule each week.

"We get started at 7 p.m. There is usually some discussion about photos that may have been identified within the last week, or new photo discoveries," LeBlond says.

"We may even try to solve some of the world's problems, even though we know those in power won't be listening to us," he says, laughing heartily. "Then we have some dessert and get down to the copying and the real work of working with the photos."

The tone of the conversation around the table goes from serious historical discussion to robust laughter and back again as the evening unfolds.

"Through the years we've made all the possible mistakes that you can make," says Hull.

"Henceforth, there will be no more mistakes," Dunklee adds.

Laughter roars from the group. These historians take their work seriously, but not themselves.

This evening begins with some show and tell. Marchant passes around some negatives given to him from a local historical society. A magnifying glass is passed as each member looks over the negatives.

There are 47 images in this collection that turn out to be of the Grace Cottage Hospital Fair Day, taken by an unknown photographer. The group works to identify some of the people and think that perhaps the era is the early 1960s.

They have a system to decide if they should spend their time developing the photos. Before they take on the project, they check to see if they will be allowed to keep a copy for their records.

"If the owner of the photos isn't willing to share them with us, we won't take that work on. And we want to know the photos will see the light of day again," says Hull.

"We always want to know what will be done with the photographs after we've finished printing, documenting, and categorizing them," Marchant adds. "Will they be going to a historical society? Into the Vermont collection at [the University of Vermont], shared with the public? We've had a few circumstances where we've done the research, and then nothing was done with the photos," he says. "And that's just a shame."

Sometimes they are asked to do presentations. They limit their talks to towns in Windham County. Through the years, they've been invited to speak in almost all the 23 towns that comprise the county.

At each presentation, the photographs will include those from the town in which they are presenting.

In addition to those pictures, the group will also include approximately 20 unidentified photographs to see if anyone in the audience knows anything about them. A scribe will note the number of the photograph and write down any available information.

Of all the talks that group members have given, one of the most memorable took place in Londonderry about 25 years ago.

They showed a photograph of a woman sitting at the steering wheel of a Model T Ford, a small toddler standing on the seat beside her.

"It's a convertible," says LeBlond, "and she is elegantly dressed in fancy lace, leather gloves, a jaunty hat on her head. She is just beaming."

"We asked the crowd if anyone knew anything about the photograph. An elderly gentleman at the back of the hall stood up and said, 'That's my mother. And that's me standing on the seat!'"

The room was electric with surprise.

The gentleman went on to explain that his mother had never sat in a car before. She was tickled to have an opportunity to sit in the driver's seat.

The moment was captured on a glass negative around 1927, which came from a box of glass plates found in a barn. The images made their way to the group for processing.

"That man died years ago, and we're grateful he was there to tell his story," LeBlond says. "Now he and his mother have been preserved for eternity with his description of this important family event."

The Wardsboro Photo Group also gives digitized photos from the presentations to the people who invite them to speak. If you want to book a historical presentation, the group has one requirement.

"We like homemade refreshments," says Marchant. "None of that store-bought stuff."

They all laugh again.

'We know we'll learn something'

There have also been some surprises.

As Janet LeBlond recalls, Bob was printing some photos in the darkroom, and "he yelled from the basement, 'You've got to get down here to see this!'"

He had thrown the photos into the chemicals and "up came a picture of my great-grandmother, my great-grandfather, and the family dog! We were amazed. We showed it to my mother. She'd never seen the photo before."

It turns out a traveling photographer had stopped at almost every home in Wardsboro and snapped a picture. The other glass plates revealed families in their Sunday best standing outside their homes.

The group has also experienced some adventure based on photographs they have processed.

"I can't remember whose collection of photos we were working on, but they turned out to be photographs of the building of the Vernon Dam," Marchant recalls.

After contacting New England Power about the finds, the group was invited for a tour of the hydroelectric power-generating facility.

Together, they have also found lost cemeteries and stone markers, and they have viewed a secret waystation for enslaved people traveling north to freedom. In 2003, the Wardsboro Photo Group wrote a book, Wardsboro VT: Exposing the Past, now in its third printing with more than 7,000 copies sold. (It is still available at the Wardsboro Town Library.)

What's next?

The group is thinking about a sequel to the book project, and LeBlond knows that he and other members will stay busy with the routine of the photos.

"Who knows who will show up with an interesting find from their attic or hiding out in a barn at their grandparents' house?" he says. "Whatever it is, we know we'll learn something and enjoy the process."

Jan Hull has the last word.

"These pictures are worth so much to us and others. They tell stories of the area from long ago," she says.

And, she quickly adds with a beaming smile, "of course, the visiting at our meetings is almost as much fun as doing the pictures."

Those who have glass slides or negatives of historical significance and would like to reach the Wardsboro Photo Group can do so by email at [email protected].

This News item by Fran Lynggaard Hansen was written for The Commons.

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