50 years Charles Elliot Gill photographed the people and places
he encountered near his home in Dent County and across the nation
as he traveled. In this photograph, made either in 1911 or ’12,
two men pose atop a large water wheel, a remnant of the Maramec
leave behind wealth or valuable possessions. Four decades after his
death in 1962 his small farm stands fallow. He fathered just one
son before his brief marriage ended in divorce. He produced no great
invention nor made any significant discovery. His name is not etched
in stone on buildings or recorded in history books.
Yet, Gill did
leave a legacy. His is a legacy of faces and events frozen in time.
Specifically, Gill’s legacy takes the form
of 663 glass plate negatives carefully preserved at the Missouri
State Archives in Jefferson City.
work of an avid amateur photographer, the old black and white images,
most taken between 1910 and 1940, offer a rare glimpse into rural
Ozark life in the early 20th century.
Gill photographed dozens of school groups throughout his life.
This photographed is believed to show the Dotson School in 1930.
this is one of our more unique collections,” says Laura
Jolley, visual materials archivist for the State Archives. “It shows
how people farmed, what kinds of structures they used on their farms. There’s
a large selection of portraits. It shows what school children looked like,
what their schools looked like.”
Gill was born in
1869, the fifth child of a prominent Dent County family. His father
was a state representative, schoolteacher and county school commissioner.
While the rest of the family devoted themselves to raising livestock
and growing crops, young Charles’ interests
tended to more reflective pursuits.
up on a farm but he hated farming,” says Edward Gill, the
only child of Charles and Myrtle Gill. “He was a hard worker
but not in farming. He was very much engaged in community activities.
He enjoyed singing and church work.”
|This 1910 photograph shows an unidentified family posing in front
of their Ozark home.
Gill kept diaries
and tried his hand at writing. Mostly, though, he took photographs.
According to a 1978 graduate school thesis written by Janice C. Broderick,
Gill received his first camera in 1887 at the age of 18. Guided by
articles in The Youth Companion, a popular periodical of the time,
he began to photograph his surroundings.
Although the Gill
collection includes a few photographs from these early days, most
are from later in his life. In 1895 Gill left Dent County for the
first time and traveled to Idaho seeking a non-surgical cure for
appendicitis from a homeopathic physician located there. Apparently,
the treatment was successful. More importantly, Gill’s journey
kindled a lifelong wanderlust that would later take him to California,
Oregon, Florida and even Panama and Costa Rica.
mother, Martha, poses for a photograph with Bernard Gill, a
nephew of the photographer.
His exposure to
the world outside the Ozarks also seemed to ignite a passion for
photography. In 1906 he purchased a Seroco double extension view
camera from the Sears mail order catalog. Broderick describes the
equipment in “Photographs
as historical documents: A method of analysis and interpretation,” her
Master’s of Arts thesis submitted to the University of
“It was one
of Sears’ better lines
and probably cost approximately $25, a sizeable sum for the
penurious young Gill,” she wrote. “The
camera’s finely finished mahogany woodwork, polished
brass hardware and red Morocco leather bellows conveyed an
appearance of elegance, and certified that its owner had serious
how Gill would compose his images on the ground glass at the back
of the tripod-mounted camera, his head shrouded in a black cloth
to shield out sunlight. The image would appear inverted and
reversed on the ground glass. Only when he was satisfied
with his composition would he insert one of his fragile glass negatives
and take his photograph.
“I used to
help him develop those pictures,” recalls Edward Gill,
who was raised by his mother, the local librarian, but
visited his father during summer breaks from school. “He had
a closet out there in the house where I was born and he
used that as a darkroom. He had a lantern in there that had a
red shield around it. That’s where he did his developing.”
only child, Edward, stands next to an oversized bicycle he received
from his mother on his eighth birthday. Edward Gill, now 86,
recalls riding that bicycle to visit his father.
Edward eventually became an avid cyclist and completed his last
100-mile ride at the age of 74.
no running water in his home, Gill washed his negatives
and prints in a nearby creek, Broderick reports. To make prints
he simply sandwiched the large glass negatives with a piece of
light sensitive paper and waved them toward the sky.
give it a swing or two depending on how much light he thought there
was. Then he’d
put it against his chest and bring it into the darkroom and put it into the
developer,” Edward says.
to use the same camera and antiquated techniques until 1940 when
he purchased a modern roll film camera. Consequently, nearly all
his photographs share a similar, formal appearance.
be a completely different collection visually if he changed cameras
in those 40 years that he was taking pictures,” Jolley
he took in the ’40s and the late ’30s
is very similar visually to what he took in 1910.”
photograph of four men on a porch is one of the few Gill images
that captures an animated moment. Gill's cumbersome 1906 camera
required the photographer to carefully pose his subjects.
his camera was so cumbersome and Gill’s
glass plates required relatively long exposures
almost none of his photographs capture action.
Most are carefully arranged scenes, portraits
or group shots.
record the everyday events in rural life. There are
images of a hay harvest, molasses-making and
sawmill operations. Other pictures show hunting
parties displaying their bounty or families
enjoying a holiday among the many Ozark attractions that
continue to lure visitors to the Salem area
Ken Fiebelman is
a local historian and former state representative who, as a teen,
befriended Gill. The two shared a common interest in the area and
|This self portrait shows Gill with his rifle and hunting dog.
The dog's head is blurred due to movement during the long exposure
required by Gill's glass negatives.
wasn’t a business. Charlie
was doing it because he liked his neighbors and he was interested
in preserving part of the heritage,” Fibel-man
says. “He probably didn’t think
a lot about it at that time but he was
just interested in knowing everybody and
being part of the community.”
of the State Archives, agrees. “The
collection is obviously a demonstration
of a person’s love for their surroundings,” says
think he loved where he lived and the
people he grew up with and he wanted
to document this.”
in the Gill collection are pictures
from the photographer’s
occasional travels. According to Broderick,
Gill worked as a copper miner and sawmill
hand in California and a fruit packer
and salmon fisherman in Oregon. He
traveled along the eastern seaboard and even journeyed
to Central America and witnessed the
construction of the Panama Canal. All
of these locations are captured on
his glass plates.
images could have been lost had Edward Gill not met an
art history professor from St. Louis
and told the man about his father’s photographs.
That chance encounter eventually
led to Brod-erick’s thesis and later a
traveling exhibit that brought 40
of Gill’s photographs to towns throughout
Gill often posed family groups at Salem-area landmarks. In this
1926 photograph a group is shown near Round Spring, along the Current
“I took them
for granted. They had just been lying
around here in the basement untouched
for I don’t know how many
Gill says. “In
retrospect, I think they’re
magnificent and I think they should
be preserved. That’s why
I decided to turn them over to
the archives,” he says.
Gill first considered donating
the materials in response to “Vanishing
Missouri,” an effort by
then Secretary of State Roy Blunt
to convince citizens to share
their family photographs. Gill’s
children initially balked at
the idea but in 2002 he overcame
their objections and presented
the collection to the archives.
men pose for Gill's camera in 1908. Specific information is not
available about the people and places shown in many of Gill's
Jolley says she
hopes other families will consider sharing historic photographs
with the public.
realize how important their own family collections are,” she
says. “Even if we don’t know what exactly
is taking place in that photograph, it’s still an example of something
that took place 100 years ago and needs to be preserved.”
to the facility may carefully look through two
boxes of contact prints made from
the glass plates and even order
reprints at a nominal cost.
In 2004 Jolley
presented an evening program at the Archives highlighting the Gill
collection. Another presentation is planned this spring in Phelps
County. Eventually she hopes to post some of the photographs on the
|One of a series
of photographs Gill titled "Camping at Twin Springs" shows Will
and Sarah Russell and Jennie and Mary Ware along a river bank.
The series showed area residents posed in typical camping scenes.
Dr. Conaways funeral, this 1925 photo shows 12 men wearing lodge
badges standing next to a coffin at the Stone Hill Cemetery.
|Three men pose with an eight-sided shaft used in a pump at the
Meramec Ironworks near Salem.