Project updates‎ > ‎

Monroe City Trip: Day 3

posted Feb 19, 2010, 9:57 PM by MassillonMuseum   [ updated Feb 20, 2010, 6:34 AM ]
Archivist Mandy Pond and Curator Alexandra Nicholis here updating everyone about the superbly successful Day Three!

Wow! And we thought the trip was fantastic on days one and two! Day three proved to be a major day!  We started the morning at 8:30am at the Library where we met with Judy and Ken Barnes, who own Miss Belle Johnson's photography award medals.  These beautiful pieces of art are from the late 1800s and early 1900s, won by Johnson at large exhibits and photography competitions.  The Barnes' had purchased a home from Mr. Nickerson and found the medals in a box in the attic.  The Barnes' also had a Certificate of Special Distinction from the Daguerre Memorial Institute for the photograph of kittens in 1909. Also included in this fine collection were several proofs in their original Belle Johnson studio envelope. Unfortunately, proofs were meant to last only a short period of time to show the customer their image, and thus the images have faded over the years.

Today was a busy day, scanning more than 80 images, and conducting five interviews with fabulous people like Robert L. Hawkins Jr. and his wife Elizabeth, Cele Spaulding, Polly Morthland, Juanita Yates and Margaret (Henderson) Swearengen. In addition to reflecting upon their memories of Miss Belle, they shared their stories about World War II, the Great Depression, the creation of Mark Twain Lake and life in Missouri.

Fred McClintic drove two hours from St. Louis to show us ten original glass plate negatives produced by Miss Belle Johnson.  When she passed away in 1945, her assistant made the decision to clean out the studio.  The camera equipment was sold and the glass plate negatives dumped into an unused cistern (this is where all good curators, archivists, photographers, and historians gasp!).  When the negatives were dumped, Mr. McClintic happened to be driving by.  He looked at the negatives, decided they looked "interesting" and asked if he could salvage a few of them.  These negatives were passed on to his son, Fred McClintic, who visited with us today at the Monroe City Library. Some of the subjects are identified on their original envelopes.  One of the negatives is the original of a photograph in the Museum's collection - an incredible discovery for our research team!  The images are beautiful, as we have come to expect.

Miss Belle's studio was rumored to have been torn down sometime in the 1950s.  Through our gathered stories and some detective work we discovered that it was located on the second floor of the current UMB Bank in downtown Monroe City, at the corner of Main and Winter Streets.  The staff of UMB were very accommodating and allowed us to visit.  We climbed the same long staircase that many subjects took to get to her studio.  At the top of the stairs, we walked through a small vestibule and down four stairs into her studio. It was as if someone had cleared the furniture and curtains but basically left it was it had been when Johnson occupied the space.  The walls and ceiling were clearly deteriorated and the large glass wall and skylight were taken down when the bank installed a drive-through window. But the cupboards were all still intact, and some original, art deco flooring could be seen. How very fantastic!  This was certainly the mecca of our research trip.  Each staff member had her portrait taken in the same place where Miss Belle may have captured portraits more than 65 years ago - with a bit more sleuthing, we hope to determine the exact location where she posed her sitters during tomorrow's visit to the studio.  It admittedly felt a bit strange to be snapping away with our digital cameras and seeing our results instantaneously, while remembering that Miss Belle sometimes took an hour to set up a single photograph.

Linda Geist has been receiving photographs to scan for the project as well.  Tomorrow's schedule includes a visit to Monroe City Manor Care Center, an interview with James Spalding and more!  Brian Donovan from Chicago, IL, is working tirelessly to collect and edit video footage of our documenary process - he is capturing behind-the-scenes information about Faces of Rural America in order to bring a different perspective to this historical project.  He has been a tremendous asset and we're eager to see how his footage complements Mandy's. 

See the article about this project:
Hannibal Courier Post

Stay tuned for the Belle Johnson Facebook Page!

Look for further updates soon - and enjoy the photographs!