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125 year old photo album to be focus of Thursday discussion

Published: Monday, May 13, 2013 11:42 a.m. CST • Updated: Monday, May 13, 2013 11:43 a.m. CST

There’s a small photograph album in the collections of the Jasper County Historical Society that can easily be overlooked.  I discovered it when I was working on compiling my first book, A History of Newton, Iowa, in the late 1980s.

Actually, I had seen a few of the images contained therein even before that time.  Six of them appear in the 1916 City Directory as part of a sketch entitled “Early Life in Newton,” written by Angus K. Campbell (1834-1926), a pioneer of 1858.

The pictures were taken not “in Civil War Days,” as the publisher of the directory believed, but were actually made twenty years later.  Unfortunately, because the album was mislaid for a time when I was using it at the museum library, I myself made an error in attributing the images to Charles Clifford, a photographer who had been doing business in Newton as early as 1875.  A native of Miami County, Ohio, Clifford came to Iowa in 1866.

But as the title page indicates, the photos in the album were in fact taken by Frederick Clifford, Charles Clifford’s son.  What makes this outstanding collection of early Newton images all the more remarkable is the fact that the artist who snapped the shutter was only about fifteen years old!

Once in a great while a researcher’s dream is realized.  You can imagine what joy I felt when I came across this item in The Newton Journal for June 25, 1884:  “VIEWS IN NEWTON. – Master Fred Clifford, on Friday showed us a lot of Photographic views of some thirty places taken in Newton.  These comprise views of the Water Works, Public buildings, Mills, residences, etc., in and about the city, and show much artistic taste.  The book is all the work of Master Fred.  It is his intention to add perhaps, twenty more views to those already taken, put them in album form, and offer them for sale.  When completed it will be a valuable sovenie [sic] both for friends at a distance and to adorn the centre table.  We hope he may have many customers, and thus encourage real merit and laudable enterprise.”

Here was proof!  This talented teen had shown a proof of his “book” to Ralph Robinson, founding editor of the Journal, a Republican weekly that commenced publication in 1877, the files of which, happily, are on microfilm at the Newton Public Library and elsewhere.

Thanks to “Master Fred,” we have a rare “look back” at how our town appeared more than 125 years ago, B. P. – “Before Paving.”  

The Jasper County Museum has generously allowed the Newton Historic Preservation Commission to copy and share the photos in the album for a special public viewing on Thursday evening.  I’ll be presenting the collection as slide pictures with commentary as part of a local celebration of National Historic Preservation Month.

“An 1884 Retrospective on Downtown Newton” will be presented at Bridgehouse Coffee Co., 111 W. Second St. N., at 7 p. m., Thursday, May 16.  Seating is limited, so come early and check out Newton’s newest coffee shop.

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