On a fine summer day more than 65 years ago, a rancher in the Flint Hills of Kansas hitched a team to an overshot hay stacker and, with his hired men, went to work stacking hay. A couple of old pickups and a John Deere tractor were off to one side, out of the way. A white dog scampered underfoot but kept a safe distance from the team. A buck rake dumped a load of hay on to the stacker head, the head stretched just beyond a right angle and a cascade of hay fell to the stack.
For all practical intents and purposes, horse-farming was a thing of the past in 1940. World War II was a heartbeat away; farm mechanization would explode soon after. But that unique, transitory moment in the hay field is frozen in time, captured on the reels of home movies shot by the rancher's daughter - my mother.
There are things we take for granted; among them, that there are scenes from the past we will never see. With the introduction of the camera and movie camera, that changed - to some extent. Photographic portraits show stern young men setting off for the Civil War. Film archives contain footage of Teddy Roosevelt giving a stump speech. Less common, though, are films and photos of the mundane aspects of daily life: fieldwork, auctions, parades and church picnics; panoramic shots of streetscapes and neighborhoods … and a Jayhawk hay stacker in action.
Those are precisely the images that tell us the most about days irretrievably lost. A good, clear image of a block in a rural business district, or a panoramic shot of a general store's interior, or even a photo of your grandmother's living room gives deep insights into another era and the way people once lived. Give me a richly detailed photo in fine focus and a magnifying glass, and I become an archaeologist, digging into the past.
But it's a two-way street. When was the last time you took a picture of a street downtown, one showing varied models of cars and trucks as well as storefronts and signage? When did you last take a panoramic shot of your shop, neighborhood, local swimming pool or a parade? These are the records of our times. Will they endure? Will your great-grandchildren care? If you don't do your part, those are moot points. Fire up those cameras!
Leslie McManus, Editor