Western Memories: Mysteries in the attic
The household attic is synonymous with the past. It is the place where we stash all the stuff we may think we might need again someday or are too sentimental to sell or throw away … your children’s high chair or the Flexible Flyer sled you had as a child.
Maybe it’s that Kenwood turntable you spun the great classics of your youth on or the stupid looking Elmer Fud hat your sister gave you for Christmas one year.
In any event, the attic becomes the family museum until someday the house is sold and attic stuff becomes interesting yard sale items. Every now and then something is left behind in a dark corner to become a mystery to later owners of the home.
And so it happened to the Hansen family many years ago in Rifle.
Maryhannah (Hansen) Throm, who was born in 1927, is a proud keeper of the Hansen family memory. Her paternal grandparents, Carl Gustaf and Rebecca Hansen homesteaded on Divide Creek in 1903 and had three young boys when they arrived from Iowa.
Her father, Richard “Dick” Hansen was the youngest of the three boys. Middle brother Joe was killed in France during World War I and is partly who the Kelly-Hansen American Legion Post in Rifle is named after. Dick stayed and worked the family farm, eventually acquiring his own farm, marrying and having his own family. Dick and Mabel Hansen had five children; Joe (named after his uncle), George, John, Maryhannah and Dorothy.
Ranch life is tough and often dangerous. In 1941 Rebecca Hansen moved from Divide Creek and bought a home on Railroad Avenue north of Heinze Park following the death of her husband, “Gus,” in a farming accident. Maryhannah was attending Rifle Union High School at this time and moved in with her grandmother. She continued to live in the house after graduation, bought it from her in 1955, married, raised a family and continues to live there today.
By 1961 Maryhannah’s own parents were ready to retire so they sold the ranch and purchased the house at 649 East Ave., not far from Maryhannah’s.
“Dad got into the attic and looked around and found this box of old glass plates,” Maryhannah said. “For some reason we decided to keep them and not throw them out. They stayed in my parent’s home until they died, then my sister Dorothy and I have taken turns keeping them in our homes since.”
For those who are unfamiliar, a glass plate is a photographic negative on glass. These came from an era when cameras were a large, bulky wooden box with a lens — photography was mostly in the hands of professionals. Although glass plates made extremely sharp images, they are very fragile and can be quite heavy when multiple negatives are together.
The box Dick Hansen found in his attic weighed in the vicinity of 25 pounds, and because the plates were in the negative form they were difficult to tell what they were taken of. By the time they were found, glass plates were a thing of the past and one couldn’t take them down to the drug store and have prints made. They remained in their box with the Hansen family never really knowing what they had.
Fifty years later, photography has drastically changed again and is no longer dependent on light sensitive materials and chemicals. It’s all done in a digital format. And with this technology, even the old forms of photography ranging from film negatives, slides, prints and even glass plates can be digitized through the use of a scanner and computer.
Pleasurable but daunting task
Most museums and archives are now in the process of scanning and digitizing their old photographs and the Rifle Heritage Center is no exception.
With more than 4,000 glass plates of the Garrison Collection to scan and archive, the Rifle Heritage Center has purchased a high resolution scanner. I and others have been given the very pleasurable but daunting task of beginning the scanning and archiving process. Most of these negatives have not been seen in their intended, positive form in well over 100 years, and so it is an absolute marvel to bring these images up on a computer screen for the first time and see a way of life none of us will ever know.
Maryhannah became a member of the board of directors of the Rifle Heritage Center when the Rifle Creek Museum merged with the Rifle Historical Society. During a recent demo before the board showing how the Garrison Glass Plates could be digitized Maryhannah mentioned to me she had a whole box of glass plates that her father found and wanted to know if I could scan a few so her family could finally know what they were. Having the opportunity to be their first to peek into an ancient photographic tomb was an adventure too good to pass up.
What I found was a photographic record of a young couple starting out in life. They begin with the dating shots, formal individual and family photos, and move on to the couple with their children. The man must have been a miner as one group photo was taken in the boiler room of a mine building — another shows the man and his partner working the winch for a mine shaft. It is striking to see how times have changed when the photo is enlarged and one realizes the partner has five sticks of dynamite in his shirt pocket and another in his hat band while smoking a pipe.
The terrain around the mine looks as though it could’ve been taken around Idaho Springs or Central City. Another clue to Colorado’s Front Range came in the form of two early photos of the Coors Beer Brewery in Golden and the Coors family home. Still, another series of photos show various couple with an early Model T touring car.
One series of photos indicated the couple had a strong Catholic belief and that this series was taken at the time of World War I. The series showed a large, circus style tent, a religious shrine, and rows of camp tents with folks getting into old touring cars and a sign out front declaring “Bible Chautauqua.” Because these come from glass plates and the resolution is very fine, the photo can be blown up to read the small print on the sign which read: “3 pm, The War Crisis with Dr. Green, 4 pm, How to canvas Catholics with Senator Pearson.”
Also in the box, along with the glass plates, was an early series of glass slides. These are positive images on a 3 X 3 ½ glass plate that was placed in an early form of slide projector for viewing on a projection screen. Some of these were taken by well-known Colorado photographers of that era and included a hand colored slide of Denver’s Union Station in its original Romanesque Revival style before its rebuilding in 1914. Another hand colored slide shows the railroad tracks going through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison below Needles Rock. Other slides are of a religious theme apparently used for teaching a Sunday school class.
Although an approximate time period and location of many of Maryhannah’s glass plates can be determined, what remains a mystery is who are the people in the photos and how did they end up in an attic of a home on East Avenue in Rifle. We hope that someday the mystery of the attic can be solved.
Alan Lambert writes Western Memories, a monthly look at history stretching from Divide Creek to the Grand Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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