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Photo memories: Dickinson Museum Center digitizes collection

Press Photos by Linda Sailer Stark County Historical Society Secretary Shanna Shervheim scans in negatives for the digital archives Wednesday at the Dickinson Museum Center.1 / 4
A view of Dickinson's Villard Street, looking west from the corner of Sims and Villard in 1953.2 / 4
The Smith Hospital was opened in 1903 by Drs. L.C. and C.E. Smith. It was located at 208 First Ave. E. The structure was torn down in the early 1960s. This photo was taken in 1905.3 / 4
A tractor pulls a Holt combine in a field near Dickinson.4 / 4

Pioneers stand beside a log house. Women operate a telephone switchboard. Farmers pick up lumber with horse-drawn wagons. All of these images create a collective view of the region's past, but they were hidden in boxes of negatives -- until now.

The Dickinson Museum Center is creating a digital archive of its regional photographic negatives -- all 100,000 of them.

Shanna Shervheim, secretary of the Stark County Historical Society, is helping to scan the negatives into the computer. Working since June, she's scanned 2,000 negatives while looking for hints as to their identity.

"There are always surprises every time I open something up," she said. "I mostly scan plastic negatives, some are glass. Some of them have dates, but lots don't -- that's why we're seeking city directories and telephone books. Things are changing so rapidly, it's now more important than ever to preserve the past."

The Dickinson Museum Center is hosting a reception marking the beginning of this project.

Titled "We are improving our photographic memory," the reception is 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday in the Joachim Museum, 188 Museum Drive. It's an opportuity to view prints and a digital show of images already preserved.

Museum assistant Emily Bradbury started the project four years ago, but Shervheim has been pulling it together. Through her work, she's become an amateur historian of the area.

"I've always been interested in history," she said. "We've been going deeper and deeper into the history of the region. It's taught me a lot about the settlers who were here -- their perseverance and grit. It was a tough place to live and that spirit is still here."

A native of Minnesota, she's come to appreciate the landscape of western North Dakota.

"When I first moved here, I was very lonesome for trees, but now when I go back, I feel claustrophobic -- I can't see a thing."

The museum's collection of negatives is primarily from the Osborn and Horstman/Presthus collections. They were studios in Dickinson that spanned a time period from the late 1800s to the early 1980s.

"They did a lot of portraits, a lot of commercial photography and a lot of photography in the region," she said. "You never know what you'll find when you open an envelope."

She has scanned images belonging to the Stark County Historical Society. For example, she's learned about a rancher, James Phelan who leased 225,000 acres of land on the Fort Berthold Reservation and ran 10,000 head of cattle.

She's met Ethel Shurtliff, whose family lived on the Green River Ranch near Gladstone from 1905 to approximately 1920. Her father was an amateur photographer, who worked with glass plate negatives.

She's seen the floods along the Heart River and the fires that destroyed landmark buildings.

"I didn't know we had a mill here, I didn't know there was a refinery here," she said.

The collection contains portraits of families, weddings and baby pictures. They are identified by the person who paid for them.

Shervheim takes whatever information she collects to create a searchable data base. She believes these images may have photographic interest to genealogists.

"Eventually, it will be all available to the public," she said.

The museum needs volunteer help to complete the project.

"We're at the very beginning -- the project is long-term that will take thousands of hours," she said. "The process is fairly slow because the files are fairly large."

Bradbury has enjoyed the scanning process. She has scanned about a third of the glass negatives.

Identifying the images is second challenge.

"It makes a mundane object so much more interesting if we know a little about it," she added.

Museum Coordinator Dan Ingram is credited with the vision to start the process.

"When I looked at the collections here, it seemed the logical thing to work on next," he said. "It's our largest and most important collection. We now have the technology for digital projects. When we accepted the Horstman and Osborn collections, it was impossible to make photographic prints."

Ingram's secondary goal is to sell canvas prints of selected images.

"It's a great way to raise money for the project and to get out into the community the wonderful images that showcase our history," he said. "It's a way for the public to help support the project and preserve our past for the future."

Ingram's goal is to put the searchable data base on a website.

"When people are doing genealogical research, they may know the last name of a relative, but the image may be is of that person's child," he said.

He thinks the project will take at least three years to complete, depending on the ability to recruit volunteers.

"Volunteers may give us as much time as they want -- maybe a morning or an afternoon," he said. "It's a fascinating process."

Through the photographs, he's seen how Dickinson has changed and how it has stayed the same.

"It made me think what an attractive town this was in the 1920s -- hanging lights over an intersection to make it look festive," he said. "The photographers were clearly very talented, capturing the essence of the community. For me to look at Dickinson as an outsider, is to learn the fascinating story of the community."

Ingman wishes to continue collecting visual elements of Dickinson as it enters the 21st century.

"We definitely want to continue to build our photographic collections," he said.

He said the museum also is distributing a brochure, asking for cash donations or volunteers.

"We have opportunities for everybody who wants to participate in this project -- we want it to be a community project. This is our shared history."

The reception is sponsored in part by the Southwestern North Dakota Museum Foundation and the Stark County Historical Society.