A glimpse into the past

June 22, 2018

One of the joys of completely packing up a space, whether it is your home or a museum, is when you unpack you can rethink where things go. We’ve been doing this as we prepare the Meetinghouse for reopening with exhibits next month. We’ve been unpacking and thinking “hmmm, that is interesting, let’s put it where people can see it.” Clearly we don’t have enough space to display everything!

 

One of the collections we’ve unpacked is over 200 glass negatives, 32 of which have been printed and framed. We only have a small wall area to display them, but are going to put a couple up and keep rotating in new ones because they tell a great story of Orleans in 1911.

In 1967 Marlena and Larry Carr were cleaning out the attic of an Orleans antique house, a recent real estate investment acquisition. A small open narrow box labeled “Mincemeat” was discovered with over two hundred glass plate negatives in individually identified envelopes. The box was transferred to their attic in Eastham where it remained until 2005 when they met Orleans Town Historian Bonnie Snow at Thanksgiving dinner. Marlena offered the box to Bonnie for the Historical Society.

 

The excitement of this fantastic acquisition led to many questions. Who was the photographer? When were they taken? Detective work began immediately and is ongoing. 

The dating of the images was made by Elinor Felt who identified image # 81 as that of her infant twin brother and sister, William and Mildred born in 1910. Their father was Bill Higgins Sr. who ran a store and pool hall on Main Street. Since all the negatives were numbered and in order, it was extrapolated they were taken around 2011.

Bonnie remembered a photographic exhibit during the Orleans Bicentennial at the National Seashore and believed the images were taken by the same person. The exhibit was produced by John Bosko, a photographer who had purchased glass plate negatives of Orleans scenes at a California flea market in the 1990s. With the help of Michael Whately of the National Seashore, identification of the photographer was made. 

 

He was Harry J. Sparrow. Harry was born in Somerville, MA around 1875 to Joel and Minnie Sparrow. Joel was born in Orleans, the son of a shoemaker, and by 1900 had returned to run the Cash Store, located at 4 Main Street at the corner of Locust Road. Although Harry never appears in the census or town records as living in Orleans, it seems he would visit and set up an improvised photography portrait studio at the back of the store, hanging a sheet as a backdrop. He also roamed the area photographing animals, vendor wagons, neighbors and landscape scenes. The 1897 Centennial booklet carried an advertisement of Harry J. Sparrow, photographer. 

According to census records, Harry lived in Somerville, Providence RI, and New Hampshire with his wife Blanche. The 1910 census lists their daughter as being 7, the same age she appears in the images at OHS.  We lose Harry after 1920 when he is living back in Somerville and working as a manager at the Quaker Oats Company. Further information about the family has not been discovered but the research continues- they might have ended up in California, which would explain how the negatives Mr. Bosko found ended up there.

 

Using his photographic talents, Harry Sparrow provided an enduring image of this brief moment of time in the town’s history. He created images of families, homes, pets, landscapes and scenes of Orleans that give us insight to life at that time including the personal relationships between the people.  In 2008, the permanent preservation of these valuable images was made possible by a Community Preservation Act grant. The glass plates were digitally processed by Bob Korn Imaging and 32 select images were framed for exhibition, a selection of which we are currently hanging up for view at the Meetinghouse.

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