Bringing the past into focus

Bringing the past into focus

Wearing a long-sleeved dress that reaches nearly to her boots, the young woman stares intensely at the camera without even a hint of a smile.

An equally intent mongrel stands at her side, ready to defend the drab, unpainted house and its sole occupant. On the nearby porch is a wooden wash tub. A wisp of smoke emerges from a chimney poking out of the shingle roof.

The photograph is one of 150 on 5-by-7-inch glass negatives, also known as dried plates, taken by longtime Oregon newspaper publisher Amos Voorhies around the turn of the 20th century in southwest Oregon. The collection is owned by former Grants Pass teacher Lloyd Smith, 71, of Longview, Wash.

"These are wonderful snapshots of rural America taken during about a 10-year period more than a century ago," explained the retired teacher, who hopes to find a permanent home for the collection by donating or selling them.

"They are all from glass negatives that were only used from about 1890 to 1910 or so," he said. "I really love the style. The focus is impeccable. He has really good exposure. Even after 110 years, they are still very impressive."

Smith recently began scanning the historic photographs to place them on the Internet so the public can view them.

Born in Greenville, Mich., Amos Voorhies was publisher and co-publisher of the Grants Pass Courier newspaper from 1897 to 1960.

The paper became the Daily Courier in 1910. He died in the fall of 1960 at age 91.

The Daily Courier is now owned by John Voorhies, grandson of Amos Voorhies. John's father, Earle Voorhies, died in 1971 after serving as publisher for many years. Although John Voorhies still has an office at the paper, he named longtime Courier employee Dennis Mack to succeed him as publisher in 1991.

A 1958 graduate of Phoenix High School, Smith bought the collection from the family when he was teaching at South Middle School in Grants Pass more than 30 years ago. One of the classes he taught at the school — where he spent a quarter-of-a-century — was photography.

"From what I was told when I got the negatives, he rode his bike all over Southern Oregon taking these pictures," said Smith, whose twin, Larry Smith, is a retired teacher in Jacksonville. "I am totally impressed with what he did."

Amos Voorhies apparently pedaled his bicycle as far south as Crescent City, east to Ashland and north into Douglas County.

"He would have had a big view camera — the kind with the big bellows," he said. "He would have been hauling out a tripod. When he took the photograph, he would have been under a hood."

That rudimentary equipment, in part, accounts for the precious few smiles seen in the collection, he surmised. However, the lack of smiles may also reflect the hard lives some of the subjects led, he added.

"But he was shooting with a camera that had a very slow lens," he said. "I assume the exposures were two seconds, maybe five seconds. They had to hold very steady. A smile is fleeting.

"Also, this was a new technology, and they might have been suspicious of this guy coming out and taking their photo," he added.

In one photograph, a family is standing stock still in front of a farm house while the blurry image of a pig can been seen waddling past.

"He probably only had one chance to line everybody up," Smith said. "I noticed they can often be seen with something of importance to their lives — a cow, horse, bike."

Very few of the subjects are identified. One exception is an 1890 photograph of Jacob L. and Sarah Meek Yokum, taken on what is now M Street in Grants Pass. Another photograph is of the Chautauqua building in Ashland shortly after the turn of the century.

But most of the shots are of families lined up in their Sunday best in front of their homes. One shows a mother holding a baby girl, with four older girls standing beside her. Off to the right stand two boys. A dog is sprawled out in the dirt between the boys.

"He always seems to group people in a definite way," Smith said. "He really had a nice touch."

But the retired teacher said he has reached an age when he wants to find a place for the old photographs.

"I'm 71 now," he said. "I've been putting them online because they are classic pictures that need to be shared. I'd like to donate or sell them, maybe to a historical society."

To view the historic photographs, see

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at

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