Remembering Nellie Jane Stockbridge

Note:  The writing of this brief piece was a spin-off from recent background work I’ve been doing in connection with an informal local committee seeking to bring a permanent display of the Barnard-Stockbridge collection’s images to Wallace.  This article — or, rather, a slightly different version of it — was published in the SHOSHONE NEWS-PRESS simultaneously this morning, on Saturday, Nov. 7th, 2015.

Nellie Jane Stockbridge

Nellie Jane Stockbridge

Today, November 7th, 2015 marks the 117th anniversary of the day Nellie Stockbridge, this region’s history’s indefatigable photographer, first stepped off the train in Wallace, from Chicago – on November 7th, 1898.

This past April – on April 21st or 22nd (depending on the historical source relied upon) — also saw the 50th anniversary of Miss Stockbridge’s death, at age 97, in 1965.

Subtract the 1898 date from the 1965 date and the result is more than 65 years of beautifully executed photographic history, recorded on glass plates, flexible film, or contact prints.  She continued her photographic work until only months before her passing.

Stockbridge began her Wallace-based photographic career at T.N. Barnard’s studio in 1898, the same year Barnard was elected the city’s mayor.  Barnard soon thereafter passed full responsibility for the studio to Stockbridge, although exactly when is uncertain.  He succumbed to tuberculosis in 1916.

The combined Barnard-Stockbridge photographic collection was donated by Stockbridge’s heirs to the University of Idaho Library shortly after Stockbridge’s death.  It comprised, all together, somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 images, though only about 30,000 have been cataloged to date.  Roughly 1,200 eloquent Barnard-Stockbridge images are available for viewing online at the Library’s Special Collection’s website – at  Patricia Hart and Ivar Nelson’s superb book, Mining Town: The Photographic Record of T.N. Barnard and Nellie Stockbridge from the Coeur d’Alenes, first published in 1984, suggested the collection “may be the most complete, unbroken visual record of a mining district in existence…”  

Miss Stockbridge was for decades a fixture of Wallace life.  She recorded portraits of generations of local families, all carefully indexed in numerous ledgers.  She also photographed all the hardships that visited our area over the years — “fires, snowslides, floods, and other natural disasters.”  And, as the Spokesman-Review reported in 1965, she “carried her camera, either personally or on pack horse, to scores of early day mining properties.”  Nellie, who never married, was also noted, said a North Idaho Press article, for a “keen, but quiet and dry, sense of humor that delighted those who knew her well.”  “One day,” added this Press article, “a salesman, unacquainted with her, referred to her as ‘Mrs. Stockbridge.’”  Her quick reply: “It’s Miss Stockbridge.  I’ve been missed all my life.”

Henry Day, Nellie’s niece, Ruth Ray, and especially Richard Magnuson arranged for the transfer of the Barnard-Stockbridge collection to safekeeping at the University’s library.  Correspondence Judge Magnuson kindly shared with this writer showed that he suggested to Nellie the collection’s donation to the University as early as 1959.  In 1965, three University librarians drove a truck up to Wallace to pick up the first load of the collection.  About the event, Magnuson recalled:

The librarians came to Wallace with a small crew and a flatbed truck.  Its bed was totally covered with a foam rubber (4 or 5 inches thick) bed.   Upon this layer, the men from Moscow placed many boxes of glass negatives packed tightly to prevent any damage from wobbling.  These glass plates were individually housed in manila envelopes.  They had been stored in the rear area of the studio and covered with a lot of grit from the nearby heating system.

This work occurred in the early afternoon of a day when rain appeared to be coming.  If the manila envelopes were to become wet, the emulsion on the glass plates would adhere to the envelopes causing irreparable damage.  The truck was loaded primarily with the most valuable items, the glass negative.  There was urgency to get them underway to Moscow…Plans were made to get the load under cover at various points between here and Moscow, if it started raining.  Fortunately they traveled nonstop to Moscow.

The precious load made it to its destination safe and sound, Magnuson added — where it has been cared for securely ever since.

A crisis emerged regarding a significant fraction of the collection in the mid-1970s.  The headline of a front-page article in the Lewiston Morning Tribune, on May 4, 1976, warned, “Potentially explosive negatives stored at UI.”  “The [collection’s] nitrate based film has organically deteriorated to the point,” the article asserted, “that serious question is being quietly raised whether the old collection should continue to be stored in the library’s basement.  A United Nations report warns that such film should be stored in vaults of uninhabited buildings.”

“This information was not casually received,” wrote Hart and Nelson in Mining Town.  “A fund-raising drive, headed by Henry Day, was put in motion to pay for the copying of the nitrocellulose film onto 35mm safety film.  Simultaneously, all the remaining uncataloged negatives were culled and cataloging was begun” (p. 160).  The aforementioned Tribune article noted that the film-rescuing project carried a hefty estimated pricetag of $460,000.  A Tribune editorial published the following day rallied support for saving the imperiled negatives.  “Surely there is money available from some source,” wrote editorialist “L.H.” [Ladd Hamilton], “that could be used to turn the photographic negatives in the priceless Barnard-Stockbridge collection into prints before it’s too late.”  The writer pointedly noted that such a rescue project was at least as worthy of support as the building of the Kibbie Dome.

Whether at the University of Idaho’s Special Collections unit or via Hart and Nelson’s graceful book, Nellie Stockbridge’s and T.N. Barnard’s photographic legacy continues to illuminate Wallace’s and this region’s colorful history.  Especially Nellie’s contribution might be noted on this date.

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