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Butte's story told through photographer's eyes
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Butte's story told through photographer's eyes

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Butte certainly lucked out in the photography department. Numerous early-day great photographers once set up shop here — Frank Ward, Al Gustav and Frank Zubick, just to name a few. None, however, was as prolific as C. Owen Smithers Sr. His photographs are comparable to puzzle pieces. Once completed, his work, which spanned more than 50 years, becomes a detailed scrapbook into Butte’s history.

A 1932 visit from presidential candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt — Smithers was there to document the historic event. The 1945 dedication of Naranche Stadium, with all the pomp and circumstance it entailed — well he was standing behind the camera then, too.

How about the year in and year out “fun for one and all” at the Columbia Gardens — he kept a record of that as well.

It could be said that Smithers was Butte’s longtime director, and the town and its citizens were his faithful subjects.

More than three years ago, the Butte Archives purchased the Smithers collection, which consists of nearly 25,000 negatives. The collection had been stored away for nearly 50 years.

Most of these negatives, if not in pristine condition, are in relatively good shape. However, floods, fire and time have taken a toll. Some of these negatives need a touchup here and there, others need a bit more work, while some negatives are in need of extensive restoration. It is a painstaking progress and more funds are needed to preserve the entire collection.

To help fund the restoration work, the Butte Archives is hosting a fundraiser, “A Night in Black and White,” Friday, Oct. 28, at the Clark Chateau.

Helping to put the fundraiser together are Nikole Evankovich, assistant director at the Butte Archives, and Aubrey Jaap, administrative assistant.

According to the two women, the Archives’ priority right now is to continue cleaning and stabilizing the negatives, and putting them into safe storage. Thanks to Archives employees, Irene Scheidecker and Harriet Schultz, and about a dozen volunteers, progress has been made. But there is so much more to do.

“Time is of the essence,” said Evankovich, “the quicker we can generate these funds to conserve the collection, the quicker the public can access it.”

Smithers’ collection is, indeed, vast and includes photos of Butte buildings (many of which are now gone), mining, dignitaries, parades, street scenes, schools, sports, and of course, the Columbia Gardens.

While he took most of the photographs, some belonged to the visionaries who came before him and when they died, he purchased their negatives.

“Therefore,” Jaap explained, “the collection spans from the 1880s on up to the 1970s.”

Scheidecker sees Smithers as not only a photographer but as an historian as well. And for that, she is thankful. “He really had a vision that history was happening before his eyes,” she said, “and he wanted to capture that history.”

Both Jaap and Evankovich agree that acquiring the Smithers collection was a huge accomplishment for the Archives. “It’s so important,” they both said.

For Jaap, the collection helped give her a sense of what the community was like decades ago. “He told the story of Butte through his photographs,” said Evankovich.

For Schultz, she is just thankful to be part of the process. “We feel real lucky to see them after they have been put away for so long,” she said. “I am grateful to have this opportunity.”

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