Kansan's Old West photos wanted

01/04/2010 12:00 AM

01/28/2011 12:33 AM

Francis Marion Steele was a genius at documenting disappearing ways of life. His black-and-white photos are iconic Old West. There's the half-circle of cowboys clutching plates of food, chuckwagon in the background, surrounded by prairie. Or the three American Indian boys seated on horses in the middle of a creek, sun streaming down. Or the early automobile, a horse-drawn wagon, billowy clouds and the pioneering spirit.

Almost all feature the prairie landscape.

In 1890, Steele, then 24, arrived in Dodge City with a portable photography studio in his horse-drawn buggy.

For the next 50 years, he would take thousands of photographs in southwestern Kansas as well as Oklahoma and Nebraska, documenting not only open-range cowboys but the progression of farming, irrigation and railroads.

"I describe him as equivalent in ability to Erwin E. Smith, cowboy photographer, or L.A. Huffman, photographer of the Old West," said Jim Hoy, director of the Center for Great Plains Studies at Emporia State University. "His photos are equally as good and important. His photos often get published but he rarely gets credit."

The center in Emporia, and the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka, are searching for Steele photographs. They have found and digitized more than 500 of the thousands and thousands of photographs Steele took during his 45-year career. Hoy is asking Kansans to contact the Center for Great Plains Studies if they know of any Steele photographs.

"His photos may be in some mother's scrapbook, in photo albums in attics," Hoy said. "He must have taken hundreds of thousands of photos. We have collected a growing body of work that's still pretty small."

At the turn of the 20th century, Steele had studios in more than a dozen towns in Kansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska.

He was born Sept. 14, 1866, in Stanton, Ill. His father disappeared or died when Steele was 4. His mother moved the family to Urbana, Mo. When he was 14, he began studying photography, working with G.T. Atkinson in Kansas City.

Ten years later, he moved to Dodge City and began photographing the cowboy way of life.

He was married twice. He and his first wife, Pink Fletcher of Meade, divorced. His second marriage with Sarah "Sadie" Harp from Mullinville lasted 36 years, until they both died in their rented Dodge City apartment on Jan. 2, 1936, of asphyxiation. They are buried in Mullinville.

It was Steele's rich documentary-style photography that caught Hoy's eye in 2003. He and his wife, Cathy, have since undertaken archiving the photos.

"He was an artist," Hoy said. "He saw himself as that. He did not see himself as a documentarian — although that's where I think his value lies today. He took photos of cowboys at work, cowboys on the open range, and farming when it came in. He shows the planting, the harvesting in steam days, plowing fields. He even has a wonderful series of the sugar beets, not only the plants in the fields but the migrant workers and the plant headquarters."

People who may have Steele photos are encouraged to contact Hoy at jhoy@emporia.edu or by calling 620-341-5549.

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