Monday, April 16, 2018

Light on the Prairie by Nancy Plain

If you have any interest at all in Nebraska pioneer history or the history of photography, you must take a look at this wonderful little volume. Intended for a middle-grades audience, this is just as valuable for young adults and adults in recounting the life, and what would become a large part of his life, of Nebraska homesteader Solomon Butcher. Having learned photography as a teen living in Illinois, he later joined the male members of his family who decided to go west after the Homestead Act took effect. They settled in Custer County and the rest, completely literally, is history. Butcher was a much better photographer than farmer and he decided to start documenting fellow pioneers in his own and surrounding counties at their soddies, church picnics, etc. With his camera, a wagon-mounted darkroom, and notebooks to record their stories, Butcher spent as much or more time traveling the countryside as he did at his own 160 acres. Many years into his endeavor, a devastating fire at his home destroyed his papers but not the 1,500 photo negatives he had accumulated. So, he recreated the oral narratives and resumed his project, eventually culminating in the seminal Pioneer History of Custer County. Today Butcher’s work is considered crucial to western settlement history, and his images are widely disseminated. A couple of things I found especially interesting were his shots of ranch daughters in their riding finery with their trusty steeds, and the fact that he would sometimes draw in elements such as plants or birds to make an image more representative of what he or the subject wanted to depict!

[If you enjoy this, you may also wish to try Prairie Settlement, Lincoln’s Early Architecture, by Ed Zimmer and Jim McKee or Mari Sandoz’ Native Nebraska, by Mari Sandoz]

[ Light on the Prairie page on the official Nancy Plain web site ]

Recommended by Becky W.C.
Walt Branch Library

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