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Green Leaves Of Summer

March 2023
2min read

The petticoats were heavy, the collars stiff and high, but middle-class American families of the 1880’s enjoyed themselves keenly at their summer homes—and no one even broke into a sweat. A group of remarkable photos preserves the memory of those innocent days

Leonard Dakin in the eighteen eighties was the operator of a prosperous Florida orange grove—a business that permitted him to spend much of each summer at the pleasant home of his grandfather, Horatio Olcott, in Cherry Valley, New York. It was a rendezvous for several branches of the family, and the leisurely holidays there gave Dakin a fine chance to practice his hobby--photography. His equipment was simple, but his pictorial sense was refined. From the scores of photographs he took, mostly during the summers of the decade 1880-90, his daughter, Pauline Dakin Taft, has made a selection for which she has written an accompanying text; the resulting book, The Happy Valley, is being published this month by the Syracuse University Press.

“In this book,” Mrs. Taft writes in her preface, “I attempt to depict the unalloyed contentment and complacency of that bygone age when there were no cold wars or atomic secrets. To make this picture come alive I tell the story of one family in a small country town, a family of no particular distinction, whose history is typical of similar families throughout the country. But this family was fortunate in having a son who preserved in photographs so rare a record of the spirit of genteel living in the eighties as to be considered a unique contribution to Americana.

“Leonard Dakin was not thinking of posterity when he took these pictures; nor were the young people in them. These girls and boys were enjoying the pastimes of a happy summer’s day, not looking beyond the present … The Happy Valley is a story of American life in its ‘more smiling aspects,’ as William Dean Howells put it.”

Mrs. Taft points out that her father was especially adept at “action shots,” and that this, in addition to his highly developed feeling for group composition, was often responsible for the unusual interest of his pictures. Both facets of his talent are evident in the pair shown on the opposite page. In the upper photo, Leonard Dakin—taking the picture with a thread attached to the shutter—is the gentleman in the derby seated at right. The year is 1886; the occasion, the fifty-fifth wedding anniversary of his grandparents, Horatio and Harriet Olcott, who stand in the center of the group, Horatio with hat in hand, Harriet with parasol.

Sometime in the eighteen nineties the photographer carefully laid away his glass negatives, each in a manila envelope properly numbered and labelled. “It was sixty years later,” his daughter relates, “that his youngest son, Herbert, found some two hundred of them in the barn of the old family homestead … behind curve-topped trunks filled with hooped skirts and finely pleated bosom shirts. … Time and the rats had taken their toll; some of the plates were cracked and stained, but most of them were amazingly well preserved.”

The leaves of many a summer have come and gone in Cherry Valley, and no Olcotts or Dakins live there now. But, as the pictures here and on the following pages demonstrate, Leonard Dakin’s camera shutter stopped not only motion, but, in a sense, the hand of time. The picnics, games, and gatherings of those sunny days long ago are indeed not quite over yet, and, one hopes, never will be.


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