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Sod House Album

June 2024
1min read

SOLOMON D. BUTCHER Photographing the American Dream

by John E. Carter , University of Nebraska Press, 142 pages, $40.00. CODE: UNB-1

LIKE CHARLES CONLON’S CLASSIC pictures of baseball, the Western photographs of Solomon D. Butcher remain far more familiar than the man who made them. His glass-plate portraits of Nebraskan homesteaders in front of their sod houses—a cow on the hillside roof, card tables and chairs on the lawn, sometimes joined by a recently dead relative—are distinctive portraits of Western settlement. John E. Carter, curator of photographs at the Nebraska State Historical Society, has printed 120 of the thousands in the society’s archive.

In 1880, when he was twenty-four, Solomon D. Butcher traveled west with his father from Illinois to Custer County, Nebraska. Butcher didn’t take to the new life completely; hapless schemes drove him much of the time, ranging from an electromagnetic oil detector to a patent-medicine he sold called “Butcher’s Wonder of the Age.” But his history project—combining his front-yard family portraits with testimonies of the homesteading families—was closest to his heart. “From the time I thought of the plan, for seven days and seven nights it drove the sleep from my eyes,” he recalled. Through the late 1880s and 1890s Butcher toured Nebraska photographing homesteaders like himself who had taken the government’s offer of land. One of his subjects, Sylvester Rawding, appears sharing fresh-split watermelon in his front yard, the rounded remains of a Confederate musket ball over his eye the only hint of the life he’d left back East. When towns at last formed on the prairie, Butcher recorded the solemn laying of water mains, “Dr. Kirby’s new car” climbing a sandy rise in 1900, and the new century’s railroads, depots, and telephone lines.

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