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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘It’s like time traveling’: Museum devoted to prolific photographers of Wallace history to open Sunday

Two pictures of Mary White in one frame at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Wallace is part of an extensive collection of work by Thomas Barn ard and Nellie Stockbridge, who both took thousands of images from 1894 to 1963, of the town and people who lived there. After decades sitting in archives at the University of Idaho, the images are now digetized, and the university has donated hundreds of thousands of them to the town of Wallace. The museum, called the Barnard - Stockbridge Museum, is slated to open Sunday, August 18, 2019. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

The picture is so clear, the detail so crisp, you can easily count the wrinkles under his eyes. Especially the ones at the sides, fanning outward like tiny crow’s feet.

Named Harry White, the subject of this particular century-old photo was once the president of the White and Bender Mercantile Company, the largest retail and wholesale grocery store in the Coeur d’Alenes, according to an obituary in the Idaho Statesman.

He was also a proud resident of Wallace, Idaho – a small town nestled in the Silver Valley with a rich history built on the backs of North Idaho’s many miners – before dying in 1919.

Long before his last day on Earth, though, White did something in Wallace most townsfolk did: He had his portrait taken by Nellie Stockbridge and Thomas Nathan “T.N.” Barnard, two of the Inland Northwest’s most prolific documentarians of history, intentional or not.

“This is just a very good shot,” said Tammy Copelan as she buzzed back and forth Friday, readying large prints for a Sunday grand opening. “Look at his hair, you can see the strands.”

Throughout their long careers, Stockbridge and Barnard would go on to produce more than 200,000 photographic images of Wallace and the Silver Valley, from pictures of underground mining expeditions and daring snow-slide removals to group photographs taken outside of schools and portraits shot inside their downtown Wallace studio called Barnard Studio.

The extensive body of work, called the Barnard-Stockbridge Collection, was described in 1976 by the Spokane Daily Chronicle as one of the “foremost pictorial history account in the Northwest and one of the top 14 in the United States.”

And for the first time since at least 1965 – when Stockbridge died at the age of 98, and the collection was donated to the University of Idaho – the townspeople of Wallace will again be able to marvel at the history of their community, this time with feet firmly planted on the same ground the photos immortalize.

The Barnard-Stockbridge Museum, bankrolled by the philanthropy of Bruce Flohr, a part-time Wallace resident who lives mostly in San Antonio, Texas, opens Sunday afternoon at the once-shuttered Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, built in 1889 by famed architect Kirtland Cutter, who designed the Davenport Hotel, Patsy Clark Mansion and Glover Mansion in Spokane, the Idaho Building in Chicago, and the Rainier Club in Seattle.

“It’s a big deal for us here in Wallace,” said Dave Copelan, husband of Tammy, who works for the Chamber of Commerce and sits on the museum board. “That collection, it’s a primary source material for all kinds of researchers. But now it’s going to be in this magnificent old building.”

Like the people she made a career of photographing, Nellie Stockbridge moved to the Silver Valley on the promise of prosperity. But to her, it came in the form of a camera and film stock, not gold pans or mining shafts.

After arriving in 1899 from Chicago, where she completed courses in picture taking, she began providing photo touch-up work at Barnard Studio, and eventually, went on to run the entire operation for many years, wrote local authors Patricia Hart and Ivar Nelson in their 1984 book “Mining Town,” which tells the story of the Silver Valley through the Barnard-Stockbridge Collection.

She’s also credited for personally capturing photos that take up an overwhelming majority of the collection.

“Other pioneering women photographers existed, even in Idaho in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, although they were rare,” wrote Nelson in an email. “Stockbridge was absolutely ahead of her time in her decision to leave home and pursue professional photographic training in Chicago, and then venturing on to the West.”

Barnard, meanwhile, bounced around Montana, Oregon, Washington and Idaho for many years, before settling in Wallace in 1889 and opening his studio.

The young photographer quickly rose to prominence in the area for his landscape panoramas and photography of news events. Every so often, he’d haul his equipment up a hill and snap a photo of the same viewpoint of Wallace or surrounding towns, perhaps inventing the first instance of long-term time-lapse photography.

Barnard was there to document the union wars of the late 1800s, when hundreds of miners were put in “concentration camps” after being accused of destroying the Bunker Hill Sullivan Mine in April 1899.

The miners – who, stories say, forced philanthropist and train engineer Levi Hutton to deliver the load of dynamite that would set off the massive explosion – were at one point photographed in a large bull pen, smiling and posing for the camera as they poured coffee and ate large servings of sliced bread.

Stockbridge, meanwhile, developed a reputation as a photographer who’d venture where some didn’t dare – especially not a woman – even if it meant going to the deepest depths of the darkest mines. And where she went, her camera followed.

But not every assignment was dangerous, or even significant. When not hundreds of yards underground, or standing on a street corner snapping a photo of a businesses display, she was in her studio, where she took thousands of portraits of everyday people.

It could be anything and anyone: A woman and her horse. A young girl dressed as a nurse. Or perhaps May Arkwright Hutton, Levi’s boisterous, women’s suffrage-supporting wife, dressed as a miner.

“It wasn’t just buildings,” said museum board member and attorney Courtney Frieh. “It was people, events, tragedies – they created a visible diary of the early decades here.”

While old enough to be around when the Barnard Studio was still producing photos well into the 1960s, Dick Vester, an optometrist who grew up in Wallace, said he doesn’t recall ever meeting the woman. But he said he’d be surprised to find anyone in Wallace who hadn’t heard of her or her camera, and the impact they’ve had on the community.

When asked whether his likeness is somewhere in the stash of prints and negatives, Vester appeared surprised by his own answer.

“You know, I haven’t checked,” he admitted. “But I’m sure there is.”

Long after Barnard moved on from Wallace, Stockbridge took over operations, until her death in 1965.

While her collection was donated to the University of Idaho in 1964, it appears to have sat idle for more than a decade, collecting dust, until 1976, when university officials discovered it might have the propensity to explode.

A Spokane Daily Chronicle story reported that the nitrate-based film had “organically deteriorated and is potentially explosive.” Funds were raised, the nitrocellulose negatives were copied onto safety film and the crisis was averted.

Much of the collection is now accessible on the university’s website.

Devin Becker, head of the data and digital services at UI, estimated about 5,000 images – most of them prints and not the hundreds of thousands of negatives that exist – have been digitized so far.

“Every year we do another thousand,” he said. “Hopefully, gradually, we’ll get there one day.”

It was with the university’s blessing that the museum was able to get a hold of the digital files.

On Friday, Tammy Copelan and others were still putting the finishing touches on the small museum space. While the church served the community for over a century in a spiritual sense, its dim lighting meant it wasn’t a natural space to present photographic work.

But no matter. After removing the pews and installing plenty of makeshift partitions, Tammy Copelan had already turned the religious space into one meant for a different type of worship.

On the soft, felt-like surfaces, dozens of the duo’s works hung: A family portrait of Mary White Gordon holding her mother’s arm, standing next to her brother. A landscape shot of Wallace before much of the town burned down in 1890. A photo of a mountain of white, peppered by small dots of men, working to clear a train track of snow.

Even the church that houses the exhibit is featured, including one photo looking up toward the altar.

Stand in the right spot, and it’s easy to imagine the “thud” Stockbridge’s tripod would have made contacting the floor. The quick flash of the powder. The metallic stench in the back of your throat like a bloody nose.

The folds and wrinkles.

“Many of the photos still exist in the same state as they did when the picture was taken,” said Frieh. “You can look at the photo and go to the same street and see the same building. Your imagination just runs wild.

“It’s like time traveling, in a way.”