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SPOTLIGHT
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Images carry scenes from the past

Published on -9/6/2013, 9:54 AM

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We're told that a picture is worth a thousand words, and we know that pictures can preserve fond memories. These days, people must be snapping lots of memories.

This thought came to mind during the past week, when I worked with several 100-year-old pictures that furnish a pictorial insight into local farm history. These scenes were captured by a professional photographer and show details of Kansas harvesting that I'd never seen before.

The harvest pictures were especially interesting because they were preserved on four-by-six-inch sheets of glass. The old-time professional photographers composed their scenes with large cameras, usually held by a tripod, that were equipped with extremely sharp lenses. Thus the detail in those scenes is sharply focused on the large glass negatives.

These days, people use all types of handy cameras to snap pictures of everything that moves. But, back when these harvest scenes were taken, professional photographers seldom shot anything that they weren't paid to take. To save money, the photographer sometimes used these glass negatives. They were home-made. He coated the sheets of glass with a light-sensitive emulsion which was developed in much the same manner as more-recent plastic film.

These glass negatives were loaned to Downs Historical Society for copying. Thanks to the digital revolution, the copying was quite different from the printing on photo paper that was used more recently. We used my digital scanner, which seems like a miracle machine in its simplicity.

The emulsion for these glass negatives was simply scanned and turned into digital files.

I can operate the scanner, but I can't really explain how the digital files are created. Think of it as magic. But the wonderful results copy every scene in detailed digits that can be saved and used with a computer to print more pictures. Thus everyone can have copies which never are spoiled by neglect, misuse, weather or time.

We at the local historical society are pleased because we gained 20 or more pictures of historic buildings in Downs, along with detailed shots of wheat headers and header-barges, horses and the harvest crew.

Not many people can recall headers. They harvested our wheat in the years almost a century ago, before we were around. This photographer captured detailed scenes of that era. A six-horse team walked behind the header's sickle-bar, with a reel spinning to knock the heads of wheat back onto a continuous canvas. This canvas conveyed the wheat heads and short stalks to the side, where another canvas conveyor sent the wheat upward at a 45-degree angle, and then it fell into a hayrack-like header barge.

The harvest crew drove horses that pulled rack loads of wheat to a convenient point, where the crop was stacked. Sometimes several wheat stacks were built at the same location. Then, when the threshing machine arrived, it was parked between the stacks so that the harvest could be pitched into the thresher's hungry maw.

All of this activity is pictured in a few scenes -- scenes that I had never seen with any detail until now. That's the beauty of pictures. They preserve our fond memories and our many activities and provide a great record of our lives. One note of warning here ... don't forget to mark your scenes with dates and the names of those photographed. With that record, members of historical societies, like me, will know what we're talking about.

Cameras and pictures have become so common in this digital age that some folks don't even print them. They show pictures of their grandchildren on the screen of their camera or phone device. The Kodak company doesn't seem to make film anymore.

The digital world has passed them by, but doesn't need to pass us by.

Darrel Miller lives near Downs in rural Osborne County and is a retired weekly newspaper editor.

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