Faces from the past on display

Hundreds of photos taken at the turn of the 20th century by a Washington County native are currently on display at the Ohio History Center in Columbus.

Photography wasn’t the easiest occupation in rural Appalachia during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Cameras were large box-like affairs that captured images on heavy plate glass negatives, and equipment often had to be lugged some distance into the hills and hollows.

In spite of those drawbacks, Lowell native Albert Ewing apparently made his living as a photographer from 1896 to 1912, traveling throughout counties in western West Virginia and southeast Ohio.

“Everything in photography from the cheapest to the best available,” was printed on the business card of “A.J. Ewing, Lowell photographer,” according to Phil Crane, researcher for the Lower Muskingum Historical Society in Beverly.

He said a copy of the card is in the historical society’s possession.

“Ewing was apparently well-known in the Lowell area,” Crane said.

Lisa Wood, curator of the “Faces of Appalachia: Photographs by Albert J. Ewing” exhibit for the Ohio Historical Society, said the photos are taken from nearly 5,000 glass plate negatives of Ewing’s that were originally donated to the historical society in the 1980s.

“We’ve had the collection for a while, but it took some time to assemble an exhibit from 5,000 plates,” Wood said. “The photos have always appealed to our staff. They’re very simple, relatable images-lots of portraits of kids, babies, families, dogs, couples being married-one shows a young woman working at a telephone switchboard.”

She said the collection was donated to the Ohio Historical Society by an Oak Park, Ill., man who said he bought the plates at an antique shop in Coal Run back in 1978.

“We’re not sure what he intended to do with the heavy plates, but he contacted us in 1981 and arranged to donate the collection to the historical society,” Wood said.

How the plates ended up in an antique shop was still a mystery, she said.

But Crane said he had seen the plates in 1974 in the basement of late Lowell resident and local historian Helen White.

“I remember talking with Helen about some local history, and she took me into her basement where I saw an entire table covered with stacks of glass plates,” he said. “She said the negatives were mostly taken in West Virginia counties. I’m from West Virginia, so I was interested.”

Crane said the images were taken in Wood, Ritchie, Calhoun, Pleasants, and other local counties in the Mountain State.

“Very few were dated or had information marked on the plates,” he said.

During a phone call Tuesday to White’s daughter, Katherine Grego, now living in Charleston, S.C., Crane learned that the plates were sold as part of her mother’s estate after Helen White died in 1983.

Grego also confirmed that her mother had obtained the plates from various people in the area, and that White had even rescued some plates that had simply been thrown away.

Albert Ewing was born in Washington County Nov. 27, 1870, in Adams Township, the second child of a family that eventually included at least eight children, according to Ohio Historical Society records.

Crane said by 1910 Ewing was 39 years old and living in the homeplace on Fourth Street in Lowell along with his mother and two sisters. He was also operating a photo gallery.

Wood said it’s believed Albert’s younger brother, Frank, could have been a partner in the photography business as some of the glass plate negatives are marked “Ewing Brothers.”

“That would make sense,” she said. “Photography equipment was heavy and it would have been a lot of work just to carry and set it up at that time. So the business could have been a two-man operation.”

Sharon Dean, director of museum and library services for the Ohio Historical Society, said at least 120 of Ewing’s images are currently on display, and more will be added.

“This is probably the first time these plates have seen the light of day for 100 years,” she said of the exhibit. “It’s interesting to know what an itinerant photographer did at that time. People didn’t come into his portrait studio. The photographer went by and took photos at their homes and was paid for the pictures by those residents.”

Dean noted Appalachia at that time has had a reputation of being an impoverished area, but the fact that they were able to afford a photographer indicates folks who lived there were really no different from people in other areas of the country.

She said the exhibit will run through Dec. 29 and is located on two floors of the Ohio History Center museum in Columbus.

Wood added that because most of the Ewing collection photos do not contain any details about the subjects being photographed, the Ohio Historical Society staff hopes residents in southeast Ohio and western West Virginia counties will be able to help identify some of the photos.

Jean Yost, president of the local Friends of the Museums group at Marietta’s Campus Martius and Ohio River museums, said area residents should make an effort to see the exhibit in Columbus or view some of Ewing’s photos online at ohiomemory.org.

“We all have a part in the history of this area, and we invite everyone, particularly those in southeastern Ohio and West Virginia to help us identify the people of Ewing’s photographs,” he said.

Albert Ewing died in 1934. The family members, including father and mother Marquis and Eliza (Foraker) Ewing, are buried in Lowell’s Greenlawn Cemetery.