A man from Chicago comes into Leavenworth, befriends an 80-year-old photographer named Miss Mary Everhard and gets out of town with her collection of historic glass-plate photographic negatives from the town’s pioneer days.
How exactly did he manage that?
The pictures were the work of prominent frontier photographers. They showed steamboats and cavalry soldiers. General Custer sitting on a porch and Old West street scenes right out of “Gunsmoke.” Surely the folks in historic-minded Leavenworth didn’t just stand aside and let a stranger hustle an old lady and get away with essentially the town’s visual record.
No, it just seems that back in the fall of 1968, David Phillips was the only person other than Everhard who saw any value in the old plates.
“Somebody told Mary they weren’t worth anything and she just as well throw them in the river,” Phillips said by phone from his Chicago studio.
He said he’s been waiting all these years for a phone call from Leavenworth.
He got it. Nearly 50 years after Phillips loaded the 40,000 plates into a U-Haul trailer, the town wants them back and the Leavenworth County Historical Society has launched a $1 million capital campaign — its largest ever — to make that happen.
“We must not let this irreplaceable history be lost,” society board member Mary Ann Brown, who is leading the effort, said this week.
About 28,000 of the plates have already been retrieved. The historical society now wants the oldest and most prized of the bunch — about 2,000 images of early Leavenworth sites and street scenes.
One shows Civil War vets drinking beer in a military retirement home in 1885 while asparagus leaves wave from the ceiling to keep the flies away. In another, circa 1880, four horses lug a giant flagpole down a Leavenworth cobblestone street.
Others show steamboats at Leavenworth landing in 1867, the 7th Cavalry barracks at Fort Leavenworth and the first federal prison.
“They should never have left in the first place,” Brown said. “A big part of our history left with those plates, and they’ve been gone a half century.”
She doesn’t blame Phillips. She said he is working with the town to have the plates returned.
Phillips said he’d gone to Leavenworth in the mid-1960s to research his family history. Somebody in a barbershop told him he needed to visit Everhard — “Miss Mary Everhard,” as the sign said — who had operated a photography studio since 1922.
She was nearing retirement and let Phillips sleep on her couch when he came to town. The two bonded over photography and the 40,000 glass plates — some her own work and the rest she had acquired from four other prominent photographers going back deep in the 1800s.
Phillips used the photos in a critically acclaimed 1974 book. Newsweek praised the collection. Even Playboy called it “a remarkable selection of prints.”
To this day, he finds it odd he managed to get hold of the Leavenworth treasure.
“I thought it was strange, but I figured I would serve as caretaker until somebody got smart,” said Phillips, now 84, about the same age as Everhard was back in 1968.
A quick glance would do, but Karen Blanchard gets captured by the eyes in the old photos.
In a small, cluttered upstairs room in the Leavenworth County Historical Society’s Carroll Mansion Museum, she looks at images taken more than a century ago.
These are some of the 25,000 glass-plate negatives that Phillips sold to the Gene Autry Museum of Natural History, but when the California museum changed its mission in the 1990s, the Leavenworth museum acquired them.
Volunteers such as Blanchard have scanned about 8,000 so far. Most are portraits, taken in studios back when having a picture taken was a big deal.
“I love the handkerchiefs in the pockets and all the ruffles and pleats,” Blanchard said.
She writes a short description of each image along with the family name and year so people searching family history can find their ancestors. Sounds simple enough, but Blanchard doesn’t forget that the plates had been buried away for years, unseen and largely forgotten.
It’s pretty powerful to watch someone see their great-grandfather for the first time.
Mary Anne Brown, Leavenworth County Historical Society
It is only now that the images born in a studio on a dirt street a hundred years ago come back to life in the digital scanner in the upstairs room at the museum.
Blanchard looks long into the face of a woman wearing a fine ruffled gown and floral hat.
“What is the occasion?” she wonders. “Where is she going?”
And children now long dead look back at her from the ages, dressed in their Sunday best, lace dresses and knickers, and they are young again.
She was so taken by an image of a young brother and sister that she had a print made. The toddlers’ names were Fred Jr. and Daisy, and they came from a mercantile family. Blanchard heard that every day at 4 p.m. the family had tea with white gloves.
The framed print hangs in her bedroom.
“That sounds kind of creepy, doesn’t it?” Blanchard said.
The museum is now getting visitors from all over the country and other countries.
“It’s pretty powerful to watch someone see their great-grandfather for the first time,” Brown said.
Brown and Phillips acknowledge that a deal has not been finalized for the last of the prized negatives, but both say it will happen.
Brown said Sunday that a series of presentations, galas and exhibits is being planned for next year to help with fundraising. Late last month, a Leavenworth group went to Phillips’ studio in Chicago and brought back 20 oversized prints made from the 3-by-5-inch glass plates.
The million dollars would be used not only to buy the negatives from Phillips, but also for archival storage, presentation and research accessibility for families, students and historians. Brown said the Everhard collection would educate and inspire generations to come about the role Leavenworth and the state of Kansas played in American history.
Everhard bought the studio of Harrison Putney in 1922. She later acquired negatives of three other photographers as they retired or died. It was common practice for studios to keep the glass-plate negatives in case the customer wanted another print.
She moved her studio and all the plates several times because of a flood, a fire and two tornadoes, and over time she found herself transitioning from photographer to historian.
“She would interview children of pioneers and fit their stories to the negatives,” Brown said.
Phillips, who like Everhard still works in his studio past 80, described her as a “sweet old girl.”
So a question beckons: What did he pay Everhard for the plates in 1968?
“I’m not divulging that,” he said.
But he did say she let him make payments, the last being $2,500 shortly before her death in 1971.
“I gave her the money and she showed me her coin purse,” Phillips said. “It had $2.81 in it, and she said it had to last her two weeks until her boarder paid his rent.”
She was relieved.
“Now I’m the richest woman in Leavenworth,” she told him.
Brown and Phillips think Miss Mary Everhard would be pleased that the photos she thought valuable when no one else did were finally coming home.
And even more so — glad she hadn’t thrown the whole lot in the river.
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182
For more information about the fundraising effort, go to www.leavenworthhistory.org/reclaiming_history.htm.