In 2005, a photography exhibit in Ithaca portrayed – with extraordinary skill and artistry – rural life at the turn of the last century. Displayed at the History Center in Tompkins County, the historic documentary images were taken by William T. Cook and Verne Morton in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Cook’s specialty was documenting logging work in northern Pennsylvania. Morton’s photographs of the daily labors and lives of his neighbors in Groton, Freeville and Dryden were particularly compelling, and inspired a project that would take five years to complete.
Verne Morton was born in 1868 on a farm near Groton, a tiny community northeast of Ithaca and west of Cortland. He was one of Porter and Dorothy Jane Smith Morton’s four children. As a young man, Verne taught school in Groton and in the surrounding communities. In 1896, he began his 49-year-long career as a photographer.
Together with his brother Neil, Verne lived almost his entire life at the Morton homestead on Old Stage Road. Neither man married. Their income came from family investments, and Verne sold his photographs to a variety of clients, including Cornell University, and a number of newspapers, magazines and other publishers.
Verne died in 1945 at age 77 after a short illness. Neil passed away in 1960.
Much of Verne Morton’s photography concentrated on the day-to-day activities of the residents of Groton and the surrounding area. With his cumbersome glass plate view camera and tripod, Morton took remarkable photographs of farm life, family activities, and children in school and at play. “The industrial revolution was having an impact on farming back then,” observed Robert B. Baxter, CEO of Dryden Mutual Insurance Company. “You can see the transition from horse and human power to mechanical power in these pictures. Morton was documenting more than just local events, he was documenting the transformation of a society.”
Thanks to his strong and well-informed interest in botany, Morton also produced thousands of stunning photographs of flowers and other plants, either out in the field or in his makeshift home studio. After processing his exposed plates at home, he would wash them outside in a watering trough.
To be sure, exposing a glass plate negative was not a point-and-shoot process. That Morton was able to capture the images that he did was nothing short of amazing. “He was patient – he had to be,” observed Margaret Gleason Hill, 82, of Dryden. She’s the daughter of Rose Howe Gleason who, as a young and attractive girl, is present in Verne Morton photographs dating back to 1905. Rose’s sister, Sarah Howe Pendleton, also young and photogenic, can be seen in his images, too. The Howes were neighbors of the Mortons, Margaret Hill noted, and her mother, besides being a comely young woman, “was good at standing still,” she said. “She was available and patient, and she was a pretty gal, too. Verne took a lot of pictures of her through her teens.”
Hill, a retired textbook illustrator, described Morton as “very quiet, studious and considerate. He was a good neighbor.” Her family would be invited occasionally to the Morton home to see “magic lantern” photography shows presented by Verne, she said. “Photography was fairly new then. He devoted his life to it.”
Morton produced a collection of more than 12,000 photographs using glass plates, nitrate negatives and, in his later years, the new small-format film. When he died, he left his photographs and equipment to his brother, Neil. When Neil passed away, Verne’s archive went to a cousin’s daughter, who donated the collection to the History Center of Tompkins County.
Robert Baxter, also a member of the board of the Tompkins County history center, attended the 2005 exhibit. “I stumbled in the door and was absolutely struck by how dramatic the photographs were,” he remembered. “They were so detailed and lifelike, especially the Verne Morton photos.”
Baxter was wondering at the time how to celebrate Dryden Mutual’s 150th anniversary in 2010. He had considered writing a corporate history, but found that there wasn’t much documentation of the company’s past. “It had been a very informal organization,” Baxter noted. “There wasn’t much of a history to write.”
Enter Verne Morton. “When I realized that a local photographer’s collection was available, and most of the images were a hundred years old, it dawned on me that I might be able to connect our anniversary to these wonderful images.”
To make that connection, Baxter hired the exhibit’s organizers Harry Littell from Ithaca, an accomplished landscape photographer and photography instructor at Tompkins-Cortland Community College; and Ronald E. Ostman of Groton, a writer and professor emeritus of communication at Cornell University. Littell’s task was to sort through the collection of about 5,000 glass plate images and choose 300, then organize them into the categories of community and people, with an emphasis on work and education. A committee consisting of Baxter, Littell, Ostman and history center personnel would edit the selection down to 125.
For the next two years, Littell labored over the photographs, digitally scanning the plates and then meticulously adjusting the scans. During that time, Ostman researched Morton and the photographs, and wrote captions for the prints. By 2008, the 125 images, sized to 25 inches by 31 inches, had been printed, framed and installed for display at the insurance company’s offices in Dryden.
Dryden Mutual, known in Morton’s time as the Dryden & Groton Mutual Fire Insurance Company, was a cooperative owned and operated entirely by local residents who became the company’s insured policyholders. The first policy was issued on May 7, 1860. During his research, Ostman discovered that Verne and Neil Morton had been insured by the company. That was an important revelation for Robert Baxter who said, “I realized that Morton was taking pictures of his neighbors and those neighbors were probably all members of the Dryden co-op as well. Then it dawned on me: These are pictures of us.”
Littell and Ostman offered to produce a book of the exhibit, and at that point, according to Littell, “we came up with the idea of 150 pictures celebrating 150 years of Dryden Mutual.”
Baxter didn’t hesitate in approving the book project, and decided to add another 25 wall prints to the office exhibit “to provide symmetry with the company’s 150th anniversary.”
Capital Offset Company in Concord, New Hampshire, was chosen to produce the book. “We could have done a less-expensive version, but in honor of the wonderful artistry of the photos we had, we thought that was stupid. Instead, we decided to go with the highest quality art press we could find,” said Baxter.
Littell spent a week in Concord working 16-hour days to fine-tune the setup for each photograph as it was printed. The effort seems to have paid off: Great Possibilities has won three publishing awards. “Everyone believes it was the perfect way to celebrate a milestone in our company’s history,” Baxter noted. “It’s better than I could have imagined.”
Twenty-two hundred copies of the book were printed. Dryden Mutual has given away almost 1,700 copies to libraries across Upstate New York, to government officials, and to local agencies of the company. Baxter plans to send copies to Upstate New York colleges and universities before the end of the year. The books, according to Baxter, cost $75 each to produce; they have a list price of $49.95.
This past May, Dryden Mutual celebrated its sesquicentennial with a catered reception at its headquarters. Some 600 guests attended, including Ronald Butts, 86, and his wife Laura, 82, of nearby Locke. Butts, a subject in one of Verne Morton’s photographs, stood, cane in hand, before a large wall print. He proudly pointed out his image to visitors who stopped to greet and congratulate him. Laura Butts told how some years ago, she helped move Verne Morton’s extraordinary legacy of glass plate images from the Morton home in Groton to the history center in downtown Ithaca. The plates had been stored in potato crates, she said. Some were found in the garage.
Dryden Mutual Insurance Company encourages the public to visit its offices to view the collection of large-scale Verne Morton photographs hung throughout the building. Special lighting was installed in the corridors to enhance the viewing. The company is located at 12 Ellis Drive in Dryden, NY 13053. Telephone 607-844-8106.
The book Great Possibilities, 150 Verne Morton Photographs, can be purchased at the History Center in Tompkins County, 401 E. State Street, Suite 100, Ithaca, New York 14850. Telephone 607-273-8284. All proceeds are contributed to the center. Its hours are Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visit www.thehistory
center.net for more information.
by Bill Wingell
photo editing by Harry Littell