Shimmering Images



AJ Dahm

History books are awash with accounts of early pioneers on the Plains. Life was often harsh and luxuries were few. Photographs documenting the era are even fewer. Farming photographers Henry Balcom and Ray Green documented the everyday lives of their Hall County neighbors from the 1890s to the 1920s. Lost for decades and later rediscovered 200 miles from home, more than 1,200 Balcom-Green glass plate negatives preserving those early days have returned to Cairo. Residents are rediscovering their own history. 

Each glass plate negative is about as thick as a window pane. A spilled soda or cup of coffee would lead to instant ruin. Hall County native and Cairo Roots Museum co-founder Ken Harders remembers losing his grip on one of the fragile snapshots during months of digital scanning in between farm chores. Harders closed his eyes and feared the worst as his wife Deb called from the kitchen to see what fell. “You don’t want to know,” he told her, surprised to see the brittle negative miraculously intact. 

The Balcom-Green collection might have been lost entirely if amateur junk collector Jay Beckenbach hadn’t stumbled upon the negatives in a South Sioux City second-
hand store in 1972. The photographers had long since passed when the negatives gathering dust in a barn for decades were sold at a farm auction after the death of Green’s son Albert. Beckenbach bought one crate of negatives for $10. He returned for the other four after realizing the historic value of the cache. He wrote about the rare find in American Preservation magazine in 1979. 

A former Cairo resident in Texas read the article and alerted Jo Reidy at the Cairo Historical Society. Reidy tracked down Beckenbach, who later drove the negatives from his Florida home to Cairo in his station wagon to be identified by residents in a celebration dubbed “Jay’s Day.” Beckenbach donated all the glass plate negatives to the society’s Cairo Roots Museum.

“I can’t believe so many survived,” Harders said, noting that negatives even returned safely from a Balcom family vacation to Oregon via covered wagon and then a train ride home. An equal amount no doubt perished, notes Harders, who heard recently how shards of Hall County history in the form of broken glass plate negatives littered the ground following the Green farm auction. 

 

For the rest of the story see the May/June 2018 issue of Nebraska Life.

 

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