Members of the public have just two weeks remaining to view the historic Graves Photography collection currently on display at the Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center. The show has been running since January but closes March 29. It honors Chadron photographers Ray and Faye Graves, who documented pioneer life in northwest Nebraska.
Subjects of the portraits on display range from a family enjoying a picnic, an afternoon tea with ladies in their finest clothing, spring maypole dancing and winter sleigh rides to Native American life, family portraits and portrayals of the agricultural industry of the time.
The Graves Photography Studio captured it all during the early days of Chadron, and many of the photos are now on display in “Photos from the Rubble” for the first time, showcasing the true depth of the collection.
“The Graves Photography Collection shows the entire history of Chadron State College in the first 10 years, shows the history of the town of Chadron, shows the family of Red Cloud,” said Frank “Arkie” Snocker, who was a Chadron State College intern when the glass plates were discovered for the second time.
Ray purchased the I.R. McIntire Studio in 1906, having trained for the profession in New York.
“He was an outstanding photographer,” Snocker said.
When Ray and Faye married, she joined him in the business, becoming a successful photographer in her own right. She trained at the Illinois College of Photography in Effingham, Ill., attending sessions there two different times. After Ray died in 1919 during the Spanish flu epidemic, Faye appears to have taken a couple of years away from the business before returning to run the studio on her own until her retirement in 1940.
Laure Sinn said they decided to do a showing of the photo collection this year after poking through the center’s archives and realizing how extensive the collection is and how little of it had been available to the public. The last show of the Graves Collection was in 2004 and featured only some of the studio portraits, but the collection encompasses much more as the couple documented nearly every aspect of early life in Chadron.
This year made perfect sense to showcase more of the couple’s work, because 2019 is the 100th anniversary of Ray’s death from the Spanish flu. The decision was made to run the show through March – Women’s History Month – in order to pay special tribute to Faye’s contribution to the business as well, Sinn said.
The glass plate negatives from the Graves Studio were nearly lost to history after Faye retired. No one knew of their existence until 1973 when John Chaney hired Zuver Construction to bulldoze the old studio to make room for the Chaney Building on Main Street. During demolition, the heavy equipment broke through a false wall, behind which the glass plates were stored. An estimated 9,000 plates were broken in that moment, but 1,100 were salvaged after the construction crew realized the treasure trove was there after seeing falling glass.
Melvin and Sylvia Zuver owned Zuver Construction at the time, and Melvin was in charge of the demolition of the old Graves Studio. Their daughter Carolyn Tehrani, who now lives in Valentine, said her parents knew the plates were important.
“It was obvious Dad knew right away that it was a special find,” she said. They understood the significance enough that they wanted to make sure the remaining plates were preserved so others could view them. Knowing The Chadron Record was in the business of news and recording history, they contacted owner Don Huls, she said.
The remaining plates were taken to The Chadron Record office for safekeeping and were once again stored away, this time in the second story of the newspaper. A few years later, newspaper staff member Jann Reichenberg was working as the head of the paper’s advertising department. While working on a special historical section, someone mentioned the glass plates to her. She contacted former owner newspaper Don Huls, who told her they were around someplace, likely upstairs.
She located them and began making her own contact prints and used them in newspaper advertising.
“The first one I printed was a lady with a great big hat,” Reichenberg recalled.
First National Bank of Chadron sponsored additional ads every week, and the community was asked to help identify the photos.
Eventually, the plates were donated to Chadron State College, housed first at the King Library before being moved to the Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center.
The entire collection is a “gold mine,” Snocker said, adding that it’s likely that at least some of the photos are nationally important. Many of the plates are broken and the emulsion has continued to degrade over time, but contact prints made in the 1970s preserved some of the photos as they existed at that time.
Snocker and other CSC interns did much of the initial research on the Graves’ collection after Reichenberg found them in the Record’s upper story. That included making the contact prints and painstakingly going through the Record’s bound volumes to find any mention of the couple.
“A lot of midnights, a lot of oil,” recalled Snocker.
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Holly Counts has now digitized most of the photographs for the current display. There are some of the glass plates that are so damaged that they cannot be touched for fear of destroying them, but many others in the collection have now been preserved for future generations to enjoy even as the plates themselves continue to degrade.
The digitization process - using a light table originally donated by Octavo Corporation to digitize the plates for the 2004 show – revealed plenty of surprises for Counts, Sinn and the others involved with putting the display together.
Graves photographed the college stake driving ceremony June 15, 1911, one of the most famous photos of Chadron State College, Sinn said. And while that was never a secret, other photos unearthed in the project certainly were.
One of the true gems was a previously undiscovered photo of Red Cloud, possibly among the last known photos of the icon before he died. It’s not the only time Red Cloud had his photo taken by the Graves Studio, but other photos of Red Cloud and his family were long ago discovered and displayed.
A photograph of a soldier discovered in the glass plates during Count’s digitization proved without a doubt that the photo was a Graves product. A family who owned a copy of the picture had previously been told it could not have been taken by the Graves Studio, Sinn said.
Graves also documented Teddy Roosevelt’s visit to Chadron and a photo included in the current show depicts a large banquet held in his honor. It’s prompted awe in visitors to the center, and school groups spend a lot of time trying to pick Roosevelt out of the crowd, Counts said.
“Every time we went down (to the archives), we go ‘What are we going to find?’” Sinn said.
Both she and Counts said it’s hard to choose a favorite Graves photo.
“They’re all so unique,” Counts said. Still, she’s pleased that they discovered a picture of the actual Graves Studio in 1911 and the registry for the business, which makes it possible to see who had their photos taken, how many they ordered and what they paid.
There is still a lack of information on many of the photos that they would love to uncover. A group of firemen, for example, sat for the Graves Studio, but there is no documentation of what town they served. One particular house appears in several of the photos and was obviously used as a backdrop; they would love to know where it was located, Counts said.
They are also certain there are other glass plates and prints out there somewhere. When the plates were discovered during demolition, passersby helped themselves to several of the unbroken plates, and families across the region have likely passed down historical family photographs taken by Ray and Faye at their studios in Chadron, Crawford, Harrison, Hay Springs and Oelrichs, S.D., through the years. The staff at the Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center would like to digitize those photos and plates if individuals can bring them to the center.
“There might be something outrageously fantastic,” said Sinn, who believes it may even be possible that there is a Graves photo of Mari Sandoz herself.
Choosing what to display from among the roughly 1,100 glass plates in the collection was a group decision-making process. The center staff and volunteers generated a list of themes the collection covers: historical, sporting events, town life, agriculture, Native American. From there they all chose their favorites in each category and curated the display from those.
The display also features items on loan from individuals, including other Graves photos for which there are no glass plates, and camera equipment that would have been used during the time Ray and Faye were in business.
“(The show) just kept growing,” Counts said.
Within hours of asking the public for camera equipment similar to what the Graves would have used, for example, an individual loaned them one that was actually sold by Ray and Faye at their studio
“People heard about (the exhibit) and they wanted to be part of it,” Counts said.
Ray’s great-nephew, Wayne Roberts, who lives in Texas, first became aware of Ray and Faye’s work in Chadron while in college when Snocker sent a copy of his first paper on the collection to his mother. In 2005, while doing his own genealogical research, he discovered the plates had been donated to CSC. Counts located him through her research for the current show, and he was able to attend the opening reception.
“I appreciate that the plates ended up with an academic institution,” he said. “They’re in the right place.”