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Rural Missouri Magazine
A life in pictures
Charles Gill's lifelong love of photography provides rare glimpse of early Ozark life

by Bob McEowen

For nearly 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 Ironworks.

Charles Elliot Gill didn’t 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.

The life’s 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.

“I think 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.

“He grew 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.

Charles Gill’s 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 Missouri-St. Louis.

“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 photographic aspirations.”

Broderick described 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.”

Charles Gill’s 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.

With 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.

“He’d 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.

Gill continued 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.

“It would be a completely different collection visually if he changed cameras in those 40 years that he was taking pictures,” Jolley says. “What he took in the ’40s and the late ’30s is very similar visually to what he took in 1910.”

This 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.

Because 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.

Gill’s photographs 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 today.

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 its heritage.

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.

“Photography 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.”

Jolley, of the State Archives, agrees. “The collection is obviously a demonstration of a person’s love for their surroundings,” says Jolley. “I think he loved where he lived and the people he grew up with and he wanted to document this.”

Also included 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.

Remarkably, these 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 the Ozarks.

Gill often posed family groups at Salem-area landmarks. In this 1926 photograph a group is shown near Round Spring, along the Current River.

“I took them for granted. They had just been lying around here in the basement untouched for I don’t know how many years,” Edward 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.

Edward 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.

Six young men pose for Gill's camera in 1908. Specific information is not available about the people and places shown in many of Gill's photographs.

Jolley says she hopes other families will consider sharing historic photographs with the public.

“People don’t 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.”

Today, visitors 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 Internet.

 

 

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.

Titled 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.
Rural Missouri magazine - April 2014 issue
 
 
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