Kalispell museum works to identify homesteaders in historic photos

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  • Lower Valley homesteader Matt Eccles would take photos of himself in different scenarios, such as playing poker against himself. (Photo by Matt Eccles)

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    Glass-plate negatives by homesteader Matt Eccles were donated to the Northwest Montana History Museum in 2012. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

  • Lower Valley homesteader Matt Eccles would take photos of himself in different scenarios, such as playing poker against himself. (Photo by Matt Eccles)

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    Glass-plate negatives by homesteader Matt Eccles were donated to the Northwest Montana History Museum in 2012. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

In the beginning, Barbara Brooner knew the strangers from one photograph to the next not by their names, but by their subtle features.

The woman with round glasses who preferred her hair pulled back just so, into a big loose bun. The older gentleman with the bushy mustache and furrowed brow. The soon-to-be bride in head-to-toe white, the young boy with a disobedient grin, the woman with the hardened stare.

It took months, in some cases years, before Brooner and others would come to know them by their names — Ellen Linfoot, Joseph Eccles, Twila Clothier, Robert Gratiss, Mary Wilke.

“They were almost lost to time, but we saved them,” Brooner said.

She is referring to the people — many of whom have yet to be identified — that comprise the lion’s share of a collection of 1,309 antique glass-plate negatives that were donated to the Northwest Montana History Museum in Kalispell in 2012. The images, captured by homesteader Matt Eccles, offer a glimpse into what life in the Lower Flathead Valley was like from 1890 to 1920. As described by Brooner, who is one of several dedicated individuals who have worked tediously and tirelessly to restore, catalog, and publish photos, Eccles’ images are “little time capsules.”

Eccles, who came to the Lower Flathead Valley when he was just a boy, was a farmer by trade but had always been interested in technology and machines. Per his own notes, Eccles picked up photography around the age of 18 as more of a hobby, and while the young pioneer never intended to be a historian or documentarian, his photos now provide rare snapshots of the past.

“To my knowledge, there isn’t a collection in existence that will give us more insight into life in the Lower Valley than Matt’s,” said Jacob Thomas, executive director of the Northwest Montana History Museum.

Many of the photos capture the era itself — interiors and exteriors of farm homes with quaint porches and elaborate wood stoves, the old Somers mill before and after it caught fire in 1911 and the boat that would shuffle early settlers, Eccles included, across Flathead Lake for $2.50.

Then there are many images that captured the spirit of an entire community — one of a few dozen people gathered in front of a home for the holidays, children lined up in front of a school, cozy living room get-togethers, summers at the local swimming hole, and portraits of Eccles himself with some, like the one of him playing cards against himself, unveiling glimpses of his humor and personality.

“They reflect that sense of community that I think is something a lot of us miss. These people depended on each other in the best way, and the pictures show that,” Brooner said. “It’s really quite amazing that we were able to get our hands on these.”

But getting their hands on the photos was only a small part of the battle to transpose them from their glass-plate negative form to full-blown images.

Most of the 1,309 photos were donated to the museum in 2012 by Ed Fine and Kathy Babock of Missoula. The two were family friends of the Eccles family and had 91 boxes containing about 1,200 of the glass-plate negatives stored in an attic for years before gifting them to what was then the Museum at Central School.

According to Thomas, they arrived without a blemish, despite some being more than a century old.

“It’s pretty remarkable that a collection like this would even exist, let alone still be in such perfect condition,” Thomas said.

The photos arrived with a few hand-scribbled notes here and there, an attempt by the photos’ former keepers to identify any figures and shapes in the negatives, most likely by holding them up to a light. It wasn’t until Ed Gilliland, a longtime museum supporter, began carefully scanning the images that they really came to life.

According to Thomas, a large milestone was reached this summer as all of the images have now been cataloged. One can flip through Eccles’ work in an online format and read details about what or who it is they are looking at.

But if you page through long enough, you’ll eventually find photos that have no information at all.

“So now that we have everything cataloged and where it’s supposed to be and we have a better idea of what we have physically, now we need to get some of the context behind it,” Thomas said.

About 30% of the faces in the collection have yet to be identified — an information gap he and others aim to fill in the coming months and years. He and Brooner, the genealogist who has taken the lead on putting names to faces, said there is a growing sense of urgency to find out who is who.

“These are precious, precious images that we believe are incredibly important to a lot of people,” Brooner said. “Before too many people pass away that would care, we need to identify as many of these people as possible or they might be lost forever. We have to remember that many of these photos are already more than a century old.”

Brooner said this project has been one of her most challenging undertakings to date as a genealogist. Among other tasks, she has had to research old census and homestead records to find and compare families who may be in the photos and dig up old newspaper articles from the turn of the century and track down anything else or anyone else that may yield as a clue as to who is in the photos.

But overall, Brooner is happy to put in the leg work, as she has a personal connection to Eccles’ work. A few years ago, she was awestruck to find that some of the people in his photos, who had been identified by other family members, were past relatives of her own.

“Do you remember the first time you saw a picture of your mom, but when she was young?” she asked. “You probably forget sometimes that she was a lot of things before she was your mom. What clothes did she like, who was her best friend, who did she date, what car did she drive. It’s fascinating when you learn about all of that.”

As Brooner and others pick away at the photos, steadily confirming names with the help of others in the community, she hopes others are inspired to document their own family’s histories.

A genealogist for more than 25 years, much of her career has revolved around looking at the lives of those who have long since passed away. And while that part of her job is important, she emphasizes that people should focus on their family that is here, present today.

“From my experience, most people don’t get interested in family history until it’s too late. When you start to lose people, you start to realize you wish you would have asked them about their lives or who was in their favorite photo. And then write it down,” Brooner said. “People should want to hold onto any shreds they can.”

To view Eccles’ photos online and assist the museum in its efforts to identify the people in the photos, go to https://glacierphotography.smugmug.com/344/Somers/i-LLgm6jt

Reporter Kianna Gardner may be reached at 758-4407 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com.

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