Tuesday evening, I worked with volunteers clearing out a muddy basement in Ellinwood. Flooding from last weekend’s rain filled it with both mud and water. With more rain expected throughout the week, we realized the top priority had to be removing items, rather than shoveling mud.
Sadly, much of what we removed were scrapbooks and photo albums filled with photos of family members dating back at least 60 years, some older. While newer photos could be salvaged, many of the older photo images were sliding off the paper or disintegrating before our eyes. Pages were filled with mud, draining water like sieves as we held them upright. I have no idea what historical and family treasures those represented.
It reminded me of many conversations I had with my friend, Sherrie Larson, Curator at the Republic County Historical Museum, before I came to Great Bend. I would pop in each week to find photographs to run in the paper. Often, we’d realize the gaps in the collection, and she told me how tragically, many photo albums get tossed in the trash by family members in a hurry to clear out property when the elderly move into nursing homes or die. With mountains of albums filled with unidentified people, few take the time to look through them for historically valuable photos.
Those include images of public buildings, people and events, or that depict ways of life long past. For instance, some of the valuable Belleville, Kans. collection were photos of people cutting and pulling ice from the Republic river in the late 1800s and early 1900s to be stored in the ice house to be sold for refrigeration. There were photos of the water tower that once stood on the courthouse square and of the stacks of bricks lining the roads around the town square, waiting to be laid over the existing dirt roads too. While at the time, they might have seemed mundane, they captured a point in history.
Now, before everyone floods the Barton County Historical Museum with their stacks of albums, it’s important to keep in mind the staff is small and mostly volunteer. There are limitations to which they can devote their time and space. A better idea--don’t wait until a flood happens or a loved one dies to dust off the old photo collection, and see if there is something of value. Today, thanks to digital photography and scanning technology, reproduction is accessible to the average person. Whether you have altruistic or personal interests in mind, you can make copies and briefly document the stories behind the really valuable memories and store them on disk or in the “cloud,” which makes it easier to share with local historians today.
For anyone who has experienced flooding this week, and is wondering if and how to save important documents and photos, a quick check with the National Archives offers some help. Keep in mind, chances are these items will still show signs of damage, even if your efforts are successful. The top priority needs to be to removing the items from the mud and water to a stable place. Then, rehabilitation can start.
“If wet and moldy materials cannot be dried immediately they may be stabilized by freezing. Placing damaged items in a personal or commercial freezer will not kill mold. It will, however, put the mold in a dormant state until time and an appropriate treatment environment are available. Manageable quantities of frozen items may then be defrosted and treated at leisure.”
But for very old photographs and negatives, freezing is not an option. The website http://www.archives.gov/preservation/conservation/flood-damage.html offers more tips.
Tribune reporter Veronica Coons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.