Our Town, 1900

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THE DAYS WHEN this country was made up of people who were born, lived, and died in small, self-sufficient towns seem impossibly remote. But a set of photographs that turned up recently—a collection unusual in its size as well as its quality—gives an extraordinarily vivid portrait of the residents of one such town in the early years of this century.

Tucked in a valley in north-central Pennsylvania lies the town of Wellsboro, founded in 1806 and laid out with a town green and wide, tree-lined avenues. By 1900 some three thousand people lived in Wellsboro, earning their living in one of the local industries: lumber, coal, tanning, and glassmaking. During this period Wellsboro’s streets were still unpaved and had to be sprinkled to keep down the dust, but small businesses flourished. The town’s commercial district boasted twelve grocery stores, five hotels, four clothing stores, two banks, two sporting goods stores, and—fortunately for us—one photo gallery.

When the building that housed the photo gallery came up for sale in 1979, the new owner discovered a room on the third floor piled to the ceiling with glass-plate negatives stored there by the five photographers who used the studio between 1885 and 1919. Eventually they caught the eye of Neal Barr, a professional photographer from New York City, who ended up examining every one of some sixteen thousand images. Of these, he selected several hundred of the best and began the delicate job of rempving all traces of the retouching that was the fashion in studio photography of the day. The samples that are shown here (all published for the first time) are among the most handsome and moving of all American photographs.