A window on all time

By Gregory Vogel


            "Each moment is the fruit of forty-thousand years," and, "every moment is a window on all time," wrote Thomas Wolfe in his classic novel Look Homeward, Angel.  His point is central to archaeology: who we are today, as individuals and as a society, has been influenced by countless previous accidents, actions, and decisions made long before we were born.  We can't hope to understand the present if we don't understand the past.  Back to Thomas Wolfe in a moment. 
            Everything changes with time, but some changes are more dramatic than others.  The Illinois River Valley experienced extraordinarily swift and wholesale changes over the period of only four decades, beginning around 1890.  The first Europeans here encountered lush bottomland forests, wetlands, and backwater lakes, nearly all of which are gone today.  As early farmers extended fields from the dry valley margins, drainage and levee districts were formed to help drain lakes, construct levees, and re-route streams directly into the main channel of the river. 


            By 1930 the transformation was complete, with the floodplain drained and dried into a wholly manufactured environment.  All of this was accomplished with the back-breaking efforts of workers using teams of horses, steam- and diesel-powered pumps and excavators, and no doubt a good deal of hand-held shovel work as well. 


            The environments of the Illinois Valley today are as much the result of these forty years of labor as they are the fruits of forty thousand years of geologic history.  This transformation of the land went hand-in-hand with a transformation of the people.  Along with the growth of farming came changes in technology and lifestyle, booms and busts of population and income, and overall shifts in the politics, culture, and society of the region. 


            Historians and archaeologists study this transformation many different ways.  Artifacts from early farms and homesteads track changes in style and technology.  Plat maps document the shifting mosaic of land use and ownership.  Written documents provide a great deal of information as well: tax records, census rolls, personal diaries and newspaper stories all chronicle the people and events of the day.  
            Photographs are one source of historical information easily overlooked by archeologists.  This is somewhat surprising, because all photographs are taken with the idea of conveying information into the future.  As soon as a camera shutter snaps, the image it captured becomes a time machine.  We are the future to previous generations, so earlier images provide a direct window into one moment forever gone.  A small window, maybe, but one that would never have opened otherwise.


            Photographs record information in fundamentally different ways from written documents.  They record not only the intended subject, but everything else that happened to be in front of the lens at the time.  Thus the portrait of great-Aunt Lucile shows that the parlor had not yet been wired for electricity, and documents in film a long-forgotten pattern of Victorian wallpaper.  A group snapshot from an early hunting party records not only the hundreds of ducks and geese bagged in a single outing, but cattails and bulrush in the lake behind the camp now transformed into a corn field.  
            Because of the great potential to learn about this dramatic era in the Illinois Valley's history through photographs, the Center for American Archeology has initiated a Historic Images Database Project in an effort to document, preserve, and share early images of the people and landscapes of this region.  Beginning with images from Calhoun, Jersey, Greene, Pike, and Scott Counties, we have begun digitally scanning and cataloging early images and incorporating them into a database that will be put on-line for other interested researchers, genealogists, historians, or anyone with an interest in this region's past. 


            Some of these images are fairly well known, and some are housed in the collections of libraries, historical societies, and other institutions.  Many more are owned by private individuals, either squirreled away in an attic box or displayed as a document of personal family history.  In order to preserve and share as many of these photographs as possible, we invite anyone with historic images of this region (pre-1930) to bring them to our facilities in Kampsville to allow us to digitally scan and add them to the database.  If photographs are windows into the past, with this project we hope to keep those windows open.


            Back to Thomas Wolfe: Look Homeward, Angel was published in 1929, the moment in time when the wholesale alteration of the Illinois Valley was nearly complete.  Images from this time are not just a window into the past.  Because we are the fruit of forty-thousand years, because we are the result of the actions, the accidents, and the back-breaking labor of our historic past, the images provide a window into who we are today.  For every image lost, damaged, or left unshared, another window is forever shut.