Snapshots in Time

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Richard with a couple of large pictures of threshing scenes

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When Richard Birklid spotted a Buffalo-Pitts gasoline tractor photo postcard on eBay, he couldn't believe his eyes. 'I've been collecting old farm photos for more than 50 years, and I'd never seen one of them before,' Richard remembers. This discovery is among the many thrills that the rural Nome, N.D., farm photograph collector seeks from the photo postcard hobby, which is just as much about the hunt as it is the reward.

Richard showed the postcard to his friend Danny, who immediately remembered a rare Buffalo-Pitts tractor in the Hickson, N.D., area, near his boy-hood home. Not only was Danny correct in thinking that the picture was taken in the Hickson area, but the eBay seller confirmed that the Buffalo-Pitts tractor picture was taken about 4 miles from Danny's home, so the duo left at once to investigate.

They easily located a well pictured in the postcard, and they also found a small wooden windmill that had stood over it on the farm. 'That's where that Buffalo-Pitts gas tractor had been standing 80 or 90 years ago when the picture was taken,' Richard says, shaking his head in disbelief. 'We talked to the son of the original owner, and he remembered that it was junked here in his yard. When you find a postcard like that, it's quite rare.'

Richard, 68, collects old farm photos for moments just like that. He also collects them for many other reasons, including their beauty, the history they evoke, the unceasing hunt for the rare and unusual and for just plain fun.

Setting the scene

Richard's collecting hobby began at the young age of 5, when he discovered some Indian artifacts. Over time, watch fobs that depicted tractors - especially Avery, Aultman & Taylor and John Deere models - piqued his curiosity. His search led him to flea markets, and his interest broadened to include other old collectible tractor items. In turn, he grew curious about the history of old tractor companies. Eventually, he gravitated to threshing shows where he discovered photos of historical farm implements and tractors. 'The photos of old tractors were my biggest priority over the street scenes and stuff like that,' he remembers.

Memorabilia dealers at the shows began to save watch fobs and old photos specifically for Richard. 'Nobody else was collecting them at the time, about 40 years ago,' Richard says. 'I think the dealers thought, 'Here comes that dumb old farmer again. We'll unload this stuff on him.'' Richard paid $2 to $3 for fobs and photos at the time. Today, these relics are more elusive and costly. 'There is only one photo known of some tractors, like that one of the Buffalo-Pitts gas tractor,' he explains. 'The 40-hp Reeves steam traction engine photos are very scarce also.'

Wish you were here

Postcard messages didn't usually pertain to the photo, but sometimes they did, which makes the photo more interesting, Richard says. 'They would mail the photo postcard to a friend, and say, 'Here's my threshing rig,' or 'Here's my steam engine.' But it's fairly difficult to find one that talks about the picture.'

These postcard shots, often taken by the owners themselves or someone close to them, were taken with a box camera invented by George Eastman. Eastman first invented the Kodak camera in 1888, which consisted of a dry plate film. The folding pocket camera, as it was called, used a 2 1/4-by-3 1/4-inch negative to capture its pictures. Itinerant photographers also traveled the countryside, shooting photographs of planting, harvest, fire, floods, and went to farms to take photos to sell as postcards.

Postcards from shortly after the beginning of the 20th century might show bustling streets of towns, a farmstead, horse and buggy combination, livestock or greeting cards for major holidays. 'Some old Santa photo postcards are rare, along with Halloween postcards, but there are rare ones in every category,' he adds. An Uncle Sam Santa postcard sold for $3,000, for instance, because only three or four are known to exist. Most photo postcards are priced $10-$25, but a rare tractor postcard might cost $200 or more.

Though home-made photo post-cards were never made in color, many commercial reproductions were colorful and could be mass-produced for a relatively low cost. Among Richard's favorite type is the main street photo postcard - sepia or colored. 'I tried to get the Main street photo of each town in North Dakota, but there were so many of them,' he recalls. His collection included more than 200 different scenes of North Dakota towns, but then he decided to sell the collection. Since then he's restarted his collection and now focuses on the North Dakota towns he didn't have previously.

Commercial postcards might depict tractor company advertisements, real estate, businesses, or a multitude of other things. Some might show the absurd: a grasshopper driving a tractor, or a single ear of corn so large it required a tractor and big wagon to transport it. A Sioux Falls, S.D., photographer, C.C. Slack, created many of these comical cards.

Some of the photographers manipulated their photographs as with this grasshopper, which appears to be driving a Deere 'spoker' D tractor.

Although postcards are very desirable, sepia tone photos (a photograph with a brown tint) are the real Cadillacs of the hobby. 'They have that brownish tint like most old photos do, and many of them were done by a home camera, so there's only a few of them that were ever taken,' Richard explains.

Big and burly

Large black-and-white photos - 5-by-7-inch or 5-by-8-inch 'cabinet' photos from 1880s to 1900s - were also popular, he says. 'They have a photographer's logo or name or company name along the bottom, or on back,' he explains. A few old threshing rig cabinet photos from before the turn of the previous century adorn his collection, but there's not too many around because home photography was limited at the time. Occasionally old photos of tractors or farm scenes are even larger, but produced in similar ways: The photo is pasted to a thick cardboard or hardback and usually shot in black-and-white film.

No matter which kind of photos -postcards, black-and-white photos, cabinet photos or large photos - tractor photos are the most sought-after in any form, Richard says. 'More people collect them, they are harder to find, and they bring more money,' he says.

Occasionally, large caches of photos can be purchased at auctions, when families sell their accumulated 'junk.' 'You usually get a chance to look through the box before you bid on it,' Richard explains. 'I suppose I get a little excited when I see a box like that. I figure I have to have that box. I'll look around and see who's there. Then I'll say, 'Oh, he's here, so it's going to be tough to get that box.' Or you can look around and not see anybody you know who wants to buy them, so you think you might get a pretty good deal.'

Sometimes, Richard will trade or buy photos singly from the successful bidder, or vice versa. He collects just as a hobby, never as a business, he says. Richard bought 1,000 photos at a sale once, but that's unusual. Many of these old photos turn out to be useless to Richard, and sifting through them can be a chore.

Painting pictures with light

Among Richard's favorite old-time photographers is Fred Olsen of Roseglen, N.D. A photographer from 1911 to 1916, he took a multitude of photos, especially of Indians and cow-boys, although he fancied farm photos too. 'I collect everything that he took,' Richard explains. 'I have 1 78 different photos now, the biggest collection of his photos in the world.' The majority of Richard's Olsen collection was bought from other collectors. He says there are still some of Olsen's photos that he doesn't have, but it's difficult to find much information on the photographer and his legacy.

Good photos aren't often found in abundance. Rather, a few will turn up at an auction, a couple others from a private collector, or one or two might be purchased from eBay, Richard says. Sometimes the photos Richard collects have a personal connection for him, such as a Reeves 25-hp double-cylinder steam engine like the one once owned by Richard's grandfather. 'I played on it when I was a kid,' he remembers. 'I remember it in the shed where I would crawl up on it, and turn the steering wheel and monkey with the levers.

Historical bonanza

Photos are a porthole into time, from photos of people at work and photos of families, to photos of tragedies such as exploded steam engine boilers or steamers that have tumbled into a creek after a bridge collapse.

'I collect the photos because of the history of the tractors, and the love of tractors and other subjects,' he admits. 'In collecting, I just keep on looking for more pictures. There's always the chance that you might find that rare one, a rare picture or a small hoard of some pictures that somebody had that nobody has ever seen.' FC

- Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and the author of several books on antique farm toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56369. His phone number is (320) 253-5414; e-mail: bvossler@juno.com

Origins of the photo postcard camera

George Eastman developed a lightweight, easy-to-use box camera at about the turn of the 20th century that utilized a 100-exposure film capacity. When the camera was full, (Kodak's slogan: 'You press the button, we do the rest') the entire camera was taken to a professional photograph developer, where prints or photo postcards could be made. Photo postcards, often called 'real-photo postcards,' were actual photos instead of negatives, so only one could be made from the camera. Thus many early postcards are one-of-a-kind.

The U.S. Postal Service changed its postcard rules in 1907 to allow writing to appear on the same side as the address. Previously, words were only allowed on the photo side.

Hobby helps historical preservation

Richard's photo collection became indispensable in publishing a Ft. Ransom, N.D, 125th anniversary book. 'I not only had a lot of threshing photos, but I had saved anything that came from Ft. Ransom in the last 50 years, little trinkets that the stores gave away, calendars, postcards, souvenirs,' he says. 'They became valuable for pictures in the history book.' Richard's photos spiced up the book. 'I had a lot of old area photos we could use for the book. I've always been interested in the old days,' Richard admits. 'I used to talk with the old men in the area, and they would tell me things.' Those people have passed away, but some of their life stories and recollections have been preserved in the anniversary book thanks to Richard's vigilant historical preservation