Old farm photos revisited

I’ve been scanning some historic photos of the farm from 1919 (view slideshow). Between that, and working on qarrtsiluni, I’m out of time to write a post today, so I thought I’d reprint a post from last summer, slightly edited, and accompanied this time by some of the photos it describes.

1. The Children’s Picnic

the children's picnic 2

Seven girls sit on the lawn around a picnic blanket. The year is 1919 or 1920, so of course they are all wearing dresses. They range in age from three to about fifteen. One girl wears a bow in her hair; she is six years old, and her name is Margaret. We don’t know the names of any of the others, because 81 years later, Margaret can no longer remember who they were. The teenager might have been her cousin Phyllis, she thinks.

The photographer takes three pictures of the children’s picnic, which will make it possible to pinpoint its location — on the lawn above the kitchen — even after eight decades have elapsed and almost everything has changed. In the background of one photo, a martin house and a large bell stand loom above the unfamiliar foliage. In the first two photos, the girls look stiff and serious — all except for Margaret, who grins impishly, at home here on her Great Uncle George’s farm. Then they go back to their picnic, raising spoons to their lips. The pet collie, whose name is Snap, appears as a blur of movement off to the left. Margaret’s eyes follow the dog; you can almost hear her calling for him to come. But he isn’t interested in joining this strange feast, which seems to include nothing but a small pile of oak leaves in the center of the blanket.


2. Charles in the Garden

Charles Schroyer in the garden

Two-year-old Charles stands in a large patch of turnips, or perhaps rutabagas. Behind him, the barn is brand-new, painted a shade of darkness that must be red. Above the corncrib, rows of fruit trees where we have only ever known a field stretch all the way up to Sapsucker Ridge, which is dimly visible in the distance. In dreams, I sometimes visit another version of the hollow that lies right over a ridge we’d somehow overlooked, where the orchard was never bulldozed out in the 1950s and the old farmhouse was spared its extreme makeover into a faux plantation home. Everything is twice as big and twice as far — the way things looked when I was small.

Margaret’s little brother still has uncut, blonde curls and wears a long-sleeved white dress. He stands with his feet planted firmly in the garden path and grins at something off to the photographer’s left. With one arm raised he points high above his head, as if leading the ranks of turnips on to glory.


3. Light and Shadows

Jacob and Mollie Plummer with mule cart

In the middle of the road below and to the right of my front porch, Jacob Plummer stands in his Sunday best with one hand on his hips and the other resting on the rear wheel of an open carriage. His wife Mollie sits up in the carriage holding the reins. They’re hauling what look like steel gates, or perhaps the springs for a child’s crib. The horse has his head up, clearly intent on getting back to the barn. At the top of the photo, a limb from the balm-of-Gilead poplar tree that used to stand at the corner of the wall until its death in the early 1970s blocks much of the background. The bottom third of the photo is a double exposure. On the near side of the road, the sky starts over with much less balm-of-Gilead in it — a sky which, judging from the sharpness of the shadows cast by man and horse and carriage, must be a clear blue and not this barren field of white that we see.


4. Harrowing

harrowing the field 1

The hired man and his son have paused in their harrowing of the freshly plowed field. It’s spring; the trees at the edge of the field still look skeletal, and there are splashes of white that could be shadbush. The newly emancipated stones have dried in the sun, making them clearly visible against the darker soil. The man is bearded under a floppy felt hat, and wears a long-sleeved white shirt and dark pants held up by suspenders. In the first photo, the camera is tilted, making him appear to stand at an angle to the ground, like the gnomon on a sundial. In the second photo, they’ve turned away from the photographer and gone back to work, the boy astride the left horse holding a switch, the man behind with one foot on the harrow and his hands on his hips as the iron teeth sink once more into the mountain’s thin red clay.


5. The Siblings

Richard and Margaret Schroyer

Richard is twelve, and doesn’t know what to do with his hands. In one photo, we see him in profile against a tree with his hands held awkwardly behind his back. In another photo, he stands in the road halfway up the hill toward the barn with his hands thrust into the bib pockets of his overalls, frowning at the camera. In a third photo, taken at the same spot, his little sister has joined him. His hands have now disappeared behind the front of his overalls, elbows a little less awkward at his sides as he stares at the ground to his right. A wide-brimmed hat nearly hides his new haircut. Margaret appears to imitate his posture, resting her weight on one leg and thrusting a hand into the pleats of her dress. The dog is nowhere to be seen. Stifling the vivacity that will carry her through nearly ninety years of life, Margaret stares straight into the lens. I find it strangely difficult to look back.

15 Replies to “Old farm photos revisited”

  1. Hi! Thanks for sharing your old pictures again. I really enjoy these old photos anywhere I find them, and my mind kind of wanderes off into an Alice kind of thing thinking of how the present was back then. Anyways, if you enjoy old photos(not just family stuff), get your hands on some Darius Kinsey–there are some big compilation books out there. He shot in Western Washington in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, on giant glass plates(just reading about his technology is cool! Those big plates make for amazing clarity–I’d love to see an origianl print in the flesh). There’s lots of scenic photos(he’s been called our own Ansel Adams)as well as photos of logging, logging camps, town, homes, etc. The neat thing is to study the faces–he was able to bring out the personality of the person, and his people look quirky and alive, not so stodgy and morose like you often see in old photos. Besides that, his wife gets credit for all the darkroom work–she was an unsung master.

    And besides that, the trees are mind-boggling too!

  2. Thanks, celeste – that’s a good tip. I’d never heard of Darius and Tabitha Kinsey, but found some of their photos online here and here.

    I feel the same way you do about old photos – definitely an Alice thing! (I don’t know if I made it clear, but I’m not related to the folks in these pictures at all.)

  3. I might have forgotten to imagine the blue sky had you not suggested it — love that. Margaret’s stance in that last photo speaks volumes. Thanks for sharing these.

  4. Margaret herself, and her little sister Frances (born in 1920), via my Dad, in 1991 when they let him make copies from their family album.

  5. Beautiful. I often think that with all the ubiquity and virtuosity of modern photography, these old ones are still the most beautiful. Makes me question my sense of pointlessness of keeping anything like that, if only one person at the other end of life can pick them up again and make them come alive… but these days there’s so much of everything.

  6. I couldn’t see the faces of the people in your pictures. Are those old photos? I presume that the people in these photos are close to you. Are they some sort of relatives?

    I’m just so happy that you never tried to edit or distort the photos. They seem so natural and just like an antique figurine, their cost is more than a fortune.

  7. Lucy – I think the relative difficulty of making a photograph in that era perhaps made even the amateurs spend more time composing their shots than the average snapshooter today, I don’t know. But I can’t discount the influence of nostalgia on my perception of them.

    old portrait paintings – Thanks for stopping by. As I just explained to Leslee, no, I am not related to these people in any way. I simply live in the same house where they stayed that summer.

    To see larger versions of the photos, which should allow you to see the faces more clearly, click through to their Flickr pages and hit the “all sizes” icon above the photos. More information about the photos is included in the photoset page linked to at the beginning of this post. More old photos, and a wealth of other historical information about the farm, is available in the History section of the Plummer’s Hollow website.

  8. You know, I like the way your blog accrues space and years. Plummer’s Hollow just gets bigger and bigger, and more detailed and lovely.

    And all this time, the hummingbirds are watching.

  9. marlyat2 – I’m very glad to hear you say that, because that’s how I hoped things would appear to regular readers – who are not unlike the hummingbirds in my imagination, come to think of it.

    pepektheassassin – Hey, thanks! I’m glad you’ve enjoyed your visit. Come again!

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