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Preserved in glass

When professional Rogue Valley photographer James Owings died in 1930, he left behind glass negative plates stacked more than a foot deep across the floor of a room in his house.

"My mother saw no need for them," said his son, Cecil Owings, who was only 2 years old when his father succumbed to an illness. "She threw them out and buried them. It just kills me to think of all the history of his we lost."

Fortunately for Cecil Owings and others interested in local history, his mother did save some of the fragile glass negatives. Cecil Owings has a few dozen large glass plates measuring 12 by 14 inches. He keeps them safely tucked away in a trunk.

Now images from the Owings family collection and two other local collections will be presented for the public to view.

Historian Ben Truwe will show 200 photographs scanned from the glass negative collections at noon Wednesday, June 3, at the Medford library, 205 S. Central Ave., and again at noon Wednesday, June 10, at the Ashland library, 410 Siskiyou Blvd.

The images date from 1900 into the 1920s.

In use since the 1850s, glass negatives fell out of favor after film was introduced, although many professional photographers and scientists used the glass format longer than the general public because of the image quality.

One photograph taken by James Owings in about 1909 shows early resident Sam Kempthorne standing by his popcorn wagon with two unidentified women at Main and Front streets in Medford. Two buildings that survive today are visible in the background — the Weeks building and the Bates Bros. building, now home to Four Daughters Irish Pub at 126 W. Main St.

"The Bates brothers were barbers," Truwe said. "They became rich. Barbers are personable people and they get a lot of real estate tips while cutting people's hair. The barber shop was also a cash business, and not a lot of people had cash back then."

In addition to the Owings collection, Truwe will show images from the Fred and Henrietta Medynski glass-negative collection. The husband came to Medford in late 1890 to start a distillery and later became a steamboat engineer. The wife was a milliner and operated a shop where she sold ladies' hats.

Truwe said for years he was familiar with a photo of the historic Stewart building, which still stands at the corner of Main and Bartlett streets. The photo shows a small sign reading "H.A. Medynski, Milliner." Glass negatives provide a peek inside her business.

"I never thought I'd actually be able to step inside her shop and look around," Truwe said. "Several of the negatives were taken inside the building, and the audiences at the libraries will be able to step inside with me."

Another glass-negative image will show a 1900 scene that likely awed early residents — a hot-air balloon ascending with a gymnast hanging by his parachute from the balloon.

Truwe uncovered the third glass-negative collection when he was browsing at an antique shop in Grants Pass.

"There was a box on the counter. It was unlabeled and very heavy. I thought, 'Ooh. I know what this is.' I opened it up and found glass negatives. I saw the unmistakable silhouette of Roxy Ann Peak," he said. "I bought the box."

The negatives were created by Medford High School teacher Harvey F. Cope, who lived from 1888 to 1961 and taught physics and chemistry.

Truwe said Cope created quite a few self-portraits and seemed to continue using glass negatives long after film became popular, perhaps because he could develop them using his chemistry skills.

Truwe said he originally thought he would be able to identify many of the students in Cope's negatives.

"I thought it would be easy to identify them by matching photos to yearbook pictures," he said. "But kids clean themselves up so much for their yearbook pictures that matching yearbook photos to snapshots of them in everyday life is very difficult."

Truwe's presentation is part of the "Windows in Time" lunchtime series offered by Jackson County Library Services and the Southern Oregon Historical Society. For information, call 541-774-6996 or 541-773-6536 or see www.jcls.org or www.sohs.org.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

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A photo from a collection of glass plate negatives taken by James Owings shows a patriotic parade at Main Street and Oakdale Avenue in Medford May 16, 1917. Photos courtesy Southern Oregon Historical Society and Ben Truwe
This photograph taken by James Owings in about 1909 shows resident Sam Kempthorne standing by his popcorn wagon with two unidentified women at Main and Front streets in Medford.