It is in the nature of a small town that boasts a substantial history to cleave to its origins, not only out of pride, but also because the physical vestiges of those origins often survive in such places.
Largely untouched by the urban sprawl and development that have characterized large cities, the bridges, homes, and buildings that constitute small towns often exist as long-enduring monuments of the past.
This is also, in part, why people are drawn to photography. As a medium photography, especially antique photography, allows one to compare a snapshot of the past to the present day, thereby forming a bridge between one generation’s experience of a place and another’s.
This was an especially appropriate metaphor last Friday, when members of the Nicholson Heritage Association held a vintage photography exhibit celebrating the history of their own famous bridge, the Tunkhannock Viaduct, as well as other people and places that are deeply ingrained in the fabric of the town.
The exhibit, which was housed in St. Patrick’s Church in Nicholson, was among the first events of the town’s weekend-long 100th Anniversary Celebration of the Nicholson Bridge. It featured photographs ranging from 1883 through the 1950s.
Both George Barbolish and Myrna Lally, who together co-chaired the event, exemplify the ways in which small town history lives on in pictures. Their personal connections to the pictured past were, in part, what motivated them to put on the extremely well attended exhibit.
Barbolish, who moved to Nicholson as an adult, lives in a house formerly owned by Lyman Pratt, a portrait photographer whose work captured the faces and personalities of Nicholson residents from around the turn of the twentieth century.
Consequently, Barbolish has a large number of Pratt’s portraits, many of which were on display Friday.
“I’m not from Nicholson originally,” said Barbolish, “but every time I would meet somebody they would say ‘you live in the Pratt house,’ or ‘you live in the Quick house.’ It seems like everything has a history here, which is why we wanted to put this exhibit together.”
Lally echoed this sentiment, saying, “It is important to have a sense of where you came from so you can have a sense of where you’re going.”
“If you look deep enough into the pictures you learn about the people and about life,” she said while admiring some of Lyman Pratt’s portraits. “You can really see the humanity in their faces.”
One face which was a constant subject of Pratt’s was his daughter’s, Marion Pratt Lundberg, who lived to be over 100 years old.
Marion Sweet of the Heritage Association was drawn to these portraits at the exhibit. “I knew Marion as an adult, a lot of us did, and it is amazing to see these photos of her as a girl,” Sweet said.
Lally’s favorite picture on display wasn’t one of Pratt’s, but a photograph of about 18 or 19 well-dressed young boys and girls that was taken in the early 1920s.
“At first I was drawn in by their faces,” she said, “but as we were mounting the picture I noticed something else. This was taken at my house, they’re standing on my stoop.”
It was hard to find a guest at the exhibit that couldn’t relate to the photos in one way or another.
Cousins Amanda Roberts and Patricia Gunton, for example, admired an 1895 portrait of their great-great grandmother, Amanda Malvina Benjamin Latham, who at 94 was once the oldest living woman in Nicholson. Latham, whose husband fought in the Civil War, passed away in 1934.
Of course, also on display were a series of photographs taken by Julian Campbell that document the building of the Nicholson Bridge between 1912 and 1915.
“Those hundreds of men who came in to build the bridge, many of whom built the town up with it, they represent that original will to build, and the bridge exists as a symbol of that will to this day,” Barbolish said while admiring the pictures. “Everyone here is proud of them, and proud of the bridge.”
Another section of the exhibit featured photos of the Nicholson School’s early classes, which were equally popular among visitors.
“The photos and the faces, they tell us a lot and they leave us wanting more,” Lally said. “We have pictures but we don’t always have a backstory, which is why we are so excited for the turnout tonight. Hopefully some people will be able to further identify people and places, and we can make our history that much more complete.”
In a way it is ironic that photography, which was born of the same age of mechanical reproduction that often suffocated small towns under the cloak of industrialization, at the same time captured their most nostalgic and transitory moments.
Nicholson, however, exists as an exception to this scenario. It is a town where an engineering marvel, the Tunkhannock Viaduct, begat by ambition and industrial prowess, bolstered a small community and its people. This is evident by studying faces, both of those living and those who exist now only in pictures and memories.
Perhaps Barbolish said it best when he said, “Putting together this exhibit highlights our history and the people who made it. It shows that they were here, and that our past did happen.”
The 100th Anniversary Celebration, which wrapped up on Sunday, was an exercise in remembrance and pride, of which the photography exhibit was a major piece.