Glass-plate photos found in Brandon uncover Vt. history from 1850s to 1920s

BRANDON — A quaint, old Vermont town is a great place to live for any historian, and Kevin Thornton knows that better than anyone. The Civil War and Vermont history expert has been mining the people, stories and archives of Brandon’s past for years. In fact, he made a documentary film, “Death in the Wilderness — A Love Story,” about a Brandon widow who trekked to a Civil War burial site to retrieve her husband’s body and return it to the Green Mountain State. The film is being screened at the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival, Aug. 24-27.
So it may be no surprise that Thornton was able to bring to life some 150-year-old glass-plate photos that were found in the walls of a Brandon building a few years ago. Now, 13 of those plates have been printed using a complex and painstaking 19th century photo development process and are being shown at the Brandon Free Public Library through Aug. 11.
How the faces of Brandon in the 1850s ended up on the walls of the library is a really good story.
A few years ago, RoseAnn and Larry Johnson were renovating the second floor of 6 Park St., across the alley from the Lake Sunapee Bank building. Workers gutting the floor discovered boxes of roughly 200 glass plate photo negatives in the walls. In the fall of 2014, RoseAnn Johnson took the plates to the Stephen A. Douglas Museum on Franklin Street. The boxes of plates ended up in the museum’s attic, and that’s where Thornton, rummaging around like any good historian and museum volunteer, found them last year.
“Where did these come from?” Thornton asked, and was told the story of the find in the Johnsons’ building. “The negatives were so filthy, I wasn’t even sure what they were at first.”
Once they were cleaned off, the plates revealed black and white portraits of Brandon citizens dating back to the 1860s up to the 1920s.
Turns out 6 Park St., built sometime in the 1850s, has housed at least five photographers in Brandon between 1865 and 1899. The plates most likely belonged to the first photographer to lease the second floor space, James Cady.
A detailed historic report by Brandon historian Blain Cliver illuminates the building’s history. Cady was a daguerreotype photographer who ran a photography business out of 6 Park St. from 1865-68. Daguerreotype was an early photographic process where a photograph was taken using an iodine-sensitized silvered plate and mercury vapor. Cady was responsible for a well known photo of the Brandon Town Hall and the now Brandon Town Office building next to the Conant building taken from the top of the Smith Block building in 1868.
The other photographers to lease the second-floor of the 6 Park St. included Nathan S. Capen (1867-1876), Sanford S. Smith (1882-87), J. and G.L. Parker (1886-89), and Frank H. Grimes (1890-99).
Cliver suspects that because the brick building faces south, the second floor of the building was ideal for photographers who needed sunlight to develop photos from glass plates in the 19th century. Old photos of the building show a small bay window was added in the 1890s, perhaps to facilitate more solar exposure.
But when electricity came to Brandon in 1889, along with the development of tungsten light bulbs bright enough for photographic developing, Cliver surmises that sunlight was no longer critical to the location of a photographer’s studio.
However, there is another piece of historic fact that makes the discovery of the glass plates even more remarkable. The brick walls of 6 Park St. were built 24 inches thick, and when a devastating fire swept through Brandon’s business district on May 9, 1919, the building survived. In fact, Cliver said, the building remains the oldest commercial building in the Park Street business district.
So, what do you do when you have a few hundred 19th century glass photo plates and you don’t know what to do with them? Call your brother-in-law.
That’s what Thornton did last year. Tony Rankin is the brother of Thornton’s wife, Maureen. The Rankins come up to Vermont each summer for a few weeks from their home in Annapolis, Md.
Rankin was a firefighter for 30 years before retiring as a captain in 2015. A former world-class sailor, Rankin always had an interest in photography, but never found the time to invest in it. In a recent phone interview, Rankin said his retirement offered the chance to finally delve into his love of photography.
“It’s kind of something that’s been there, but for one reason or another, I wasn’t able to dig into it,” he said. “ I fell in love with the concept of photography and telling a story through photographs.”
And dig into it, he did. Rankin has taken the adage, “You’re never too old to learn something new” to new heights. He didn’t just start taking photos. He pursued a degree in fine art, specializing in photography, and is a junior at the University of Maryland/Baltimore County. While in school, he developed an interest in old photographic development techniques, including wet plate development, which uses glass plate negatives.
“Kevin told me he had these glass plates,” Rankin said. “And he wanted to know what to do with them.”
Rankin happened to be looking for an independent study project for school, and knew exactly what to do with them.
The two men inspected and cleaned 200 of the plates last summer, then Rankin scanned 20 of them into a computer in order to preserve the image, but more importantly to preserve the plate.
“The more you handle these plates, the worse it is for them,” he said. “This way, we only handled them once, then stored them away without touching them again. The number-one objective was to do no more harm.”
He then used Photoshop to correct some of the problems in the negatives and fix any damage to the images, rebuilding them as intended. He also resized the images, originally 4 x 5 inches, to 8 x 11 inches.
Rankin then printed out the digital negatives and developed the photos using the albumen process. Yes, it requires egg whites, as well as sunlight, silver and a gold chloride wash.
He was able to print 13 of the plates. It is those prints that now hang in the Brandon Library, Rankin’s first-ever solo photography show.
“I am by no means an expert on this,” he said, downplaying his craft. “It’s all based on what your negative looks like. It takes 10,000 hours to become an expert, and I’m not there yet.”
But albumen printing takes an enormous amount of patience, time, impeccable timing and perfectionism, and Rankin clearly possesses those qualities.
“I think it’s a neat process and I anticipate learning more about the albumen process and other processes used in the past,” he said. “There’s a fine art quality to that kind of photography that you don’t see. It has a very romantic feel.”
Visit the Brandon Library and feel the romance of the town’s history in the faces Rankin developed, thanks to a curious local historian, a wall find and fate.
Oh, and local photographer Don Russ? He is the current occupant of the second floor apartment at 6 Park St. The legacy lives on…
The show is also sponsored by the Brandon Museum at the Stephen Douglas Birthplace.

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