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You might find an ancestor in restored glass plate negatives

From 1900 to 1986, the W.R. and Mary Gray family ran a photo studio in St. John. Their photos depicted everyday life in Stafford County. Here, the Grays are surrounded by their five children.
From 1900 to 1986, the W.R. and Mary Gray family ran a photo studio in St. John. Their photos depicted everyday life in Stafford County. Here, the Grays are surrounded by their five children. Courtesy photo

It is finished.

The last glass plate negative in the W.R. Gray collection of the Stafford County Museum was cleaned and cataloged earlier this month by museum president and volunteer Marion Hearn. It was No. 30,843 – as in 30,843 glass plate negatives.

It has taken the museum nine years and $25,000 to clean what many consider the largest collection of photographic glass plate negatives in the nation tied to a specific location.

“We’ve learned a lot – from conserving negatives, how to record information and archive to the history of St. John and the area,” said Michael Hathaway, Stafford County Museum curator and project director.

“We’re putting them online and hope people can find their relatives and friends.”

To see the photos, go to staffordcounty.org/museum/glass_negatives.html.

From 1900 to 1986, the W.R. and Mary Gray family ran a photo studio in St. John. Their photos depicted everyday life in Stafford County for about eight decades. Almost every family that has ever lived in Stafford County is represented in the archive.

Hearn, 85, said he has logged more than 1, 977 hours processing 17,028 negatives. Don Hornbaker, 90, did nearly 14,000.

Well, just about all my fingers are tired and it took a lot of lead in our pencils. But it certainly is great to have it come to a close.

Marion Hearn, Stafford County Museum president and volunteer

“It is great to come to an end of a long and interesting process,” Hearn said. “Well, just about all my fingers are tired and it took a lot of lead in our pencils. But it certainly is great to have it come to a close.”

Hornbaker said he is impressed with the quality of Gray’s photography.

“He was an expert with lighting,” Hornbaker said. “It is amazing how clear those pictures are compared to what we have today.”

The glass plate negatives had to be handled carefully. They are reverse photographic images transferred onto glass.

This type of photography started in the 1850s and was used until the 1930s, when Kodak’s Brownie camera and film became more accessible.

Gray took photos of everything: farmers in the field, women in hammocks, street shenanigans after Halloween. Even studying how people dressed for the photos reflected how clothing trends changed through the years.

Funding for the restoration came from the Kansas Humanities Council; grants from the Odd Fellows, Walmart, Midwest Energy, the Golden Belt Community Foundation, South Central Community Foundation; and private donations, Hathaway said.

Beccy Tanner: 316-268-6336, @beccytanner

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