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Home Photography Photographer captured early 20th century life in Tompkins County

Photographer captured early 20th century life in Tompkins County


Gene Endres, Special to The Ithaca Journal
Published 8:00 p.m. ET Sept. 20, 2019

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While we have many written accounts of what life in early Tompkins County was like, it was not until the late 1800s that we could see how people lived.

In earlier days, a few visual cues came from artists of greater or lesser skill. Then, thanks to photography — which was only truly developed by about 1840, first from daguerrotypes (used mostly for portraits), and then from silver-based photographs (made in the field with an actual portable darkroom) — we can see some pictures of how people lived.

Verne Morton was a young man, born in Groton in 1868, whose parents had a farm just outside the village. The family had a share in a carriage and wagon business, as well as the farm, so their finances were more secure than usual.

Morton was not a strong youth, so rather than doing many of the physically taxing chores required on a farm, he pursued the more intellectual and artistic side of life. He grew up teaching in some of the local district schools, but had additional interests in the natural sciences, following the lead of naturalists like John Burroughs, collecting flower and fern specimens, which Morton turned into a herbarium — the plants were dried and preserved on special sheets.

This image of a young screech owl was taken by Verne Morton in 1912. A self-taught naturalist, Morton carefully documented the wildlife he saw in early 20th century Groton. (Photo: The History Center in Tompkins County)

In 1896, he acquired a camera, not a Kodak box, but a much larger one on a tripod that used the new and more convenient glass plates one could buy from George Eastman’s Kodak company and other vendors. This allowed him to take pictures under many conditions, developing the plates at home.

Morton proceeded to record many aspects of the life around him: plants, animals, friends and relatives, landscapes and buildings, and people at work and play in many different ways. Despite what was certainly a costly medium, he ended up taking several thousand glass plate photographs over the years. By around 1913, using the more convenient and portable cellulose film, Morton made more thousands of pictures. In the 1930s, he used roll film and even began making color slides around 1940, when Kodachrome film brought that possibility.

His early glass plates show a careful and methodical photographer, and the images are exquisitely detailed. Morton’s later work, thanks to the simpler films, shows somewhat less care, but he was able to travel around the state and beyond with his brother Neil, also a photographer. Morton was able to sell pictures to magazines and professors at Cornell’s agricultural college, for use in their papers. He turned out mailable photo postcards, sold in local stores, and did some work photographing local gatherings, though never advertising himself as a photographer.

After Morton died in 1945, his photo archive passed to Neil, and then to a more distant relative, Ina Smith, in 1960. Unable to store the weighty glass plates, she gave them to the DeWitt Historical Society in Ithaca, where they were recognized as a valuable picture of life as it was lived in the county in the first half of the 20th century. Smith also eventually gave the film negatives and slides, as well as Neil’s photos, to what is now The History Center in Tompkins County, where anyone can see them.

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Gene Endres is a research assistant at The History Center in Tompkins County and a member of the Cornell Railroad Historical Association. Support our journalism and become a digital subscriber today. Click here for our special offers.

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