In a small office upstairs at the Truman Courthouse in Independence, Missouri, archivists are trying to capture the history in a set of more than 300,000 images.
“It’s kind of a treasure hunt,” says digital archivist Erin Gray. “You never know what you’re going to come across.”
The painstaking process begins when someone like Gray reaches into a box, pulls out a vintage negative and holds it up to the light.
“I’m looking to see if I have a date on it,” she says. “Some of the negatives will actually have a date on the edges of it, or they will have an order number from the original photographer.”
Gray works for the Jackson County Historical Society, which has been working to digitize the negatives since they acquired the vast Wilborn Collection in 2017.
“About a month ago we found our oldest negatives to date, of the Kansas City Depot, that dated back to 1890,” she says.
That depot played an important role in Kansas City history. After the 1869 construction of the Hannibal Bridge — the first to span the Missouri River — Kansas City built its first major train station, Union Depot. It became a hub of commerce, and connected Kansas City with the major trade centers to the east, including St. Louis, Chicago and New York.
Another recent find is a 1895 photo at a fire department in the small town of Glasgow, Missouri, on a bend of the Missouri River just north of Boonville. In the photo, 16 firefighters pose in full gear with their hook and ladder wagons. Behind them is a dry goods store and the office of J.D. Atkinson, advertised as a “painless dentist.”
Archivist and Educational Director Danielle Hall says the historical details she finds in each of the photographs are exciting.
“It’s been really neat to see what their equipment looked like back then, compared to today,” Hall says. “It’s night and day. They basically just had really tall ladders that they would have to push and pull everywhere.”
The collection originated at local commercial photo company Wilborn and Associates, founded in 1921, and owned by Clarence Wilborn and his son Chris. When Kansas City photo studios Tyner and Murphy, and then Anderson, went out of business, the Wilborns bought their photographic archives. When Chris retired in 2017, the Jackson County Historical Society acquired the entire collection.
It’s one of the largest collections of historic photographs they’ve ever received. Hall says it’s rare to find such a large collection intact.
“It tells the history of Kansas City through photos in one single collection. Usually you have to pull different photos from different donations and collections to tell some part of a history,” Hall says. “This collection goes back to 1890, so we can literally track how Kansas City has evolved.”
The photos document events both large and small. There are celebrations, parades, and dedications, all marking the milestones of a growing Midwestern city.
These brittle, sometimes large negatives require special handling, Gray says.
“The oils on your skin can actually damage the negatives, damage those prints over time,” she says. “Gloves are always required.”
The Historical Society’s next big challenge is buying a scanner large enough to digitize them.
“We have 320 individual boxes that contain thousands of negatives,” Gray says, and there are still thousands to scan and research.
“We’ve found some really neat ones of the Kansas City Athletics team,” Gray says. “We found some of the Kansas City Blues, which is what I’m currently working on making available on the website.”
The goal is to scan, preserve and share the images with the public on the Historical Society’s website. More than 700 photographs are already online.
‘A love of history’
No one knows these photographs better than Chris Wilborn. Before he retired six years ago, Wilborn spent hours in the darkroom, printing many of these images himself.
So when it came time to let the collection go, he didn’t want it to leave town and he didn’t want to split it up.
Instead, Wilborn sold the collection to former Historical Society Executive Director Steve Noll and his wife, Marianne. The Nolls donated the Wilborn Collection to the Historical Society in 2017.
“Kansas City is so rich in history,” he says. “I worked for 50 years in the photography industry, and so I do love photography, but the most important thing is a love of history.”
Wilborn maintains a shared copyright with the Historical Society so he can sell prints of a few of his favorite photographs at an antique store in Olathe.
Each photo has a story to tell, Wilborn says, like the one he found of Charles Lindbergh, the famous American aviator.
“I opened a drawer and there was a picture of Lindbergh in Kansas City, Missouri,” Wilborn remembers. “Well, I had a fascination with Lindbergh as a young kid, so here’s my hero coming to Kansas City!”
While showing the photo of Lindbergh around, one man shared a story about the visit: A group of Boy Scouts was charged with keeping the crowds back, and they were warned not to reach out to Lindbergh as he passed.
“But one kid just couldn’t stand it, and he reached out and touched Lindbergh,” Wilborn says. “It would be like somebody reaching out and touching Taylor Swift.”
That photograph of Lindbergh has not been scanned yet, but will be available on the Historical Society’s website when it is.
At the heart of the collection are thousands of panoramic photos. Wilborn says each commemorates an important moment in Kansas City history, including a three-foot-long image from 1914. It shows a large crowd gathered in front of a massive, limestone train station. Behind it the familiar Kansas City skyline is empty.
“Because it was such a high profile building,” Wilborn says, “there’s amateurs that shot pictures, there’s many professionals that shot pictures of the new Union Station — but there were just a few that shot panoramics. And so this is one of the few panoramics that’s in existence.”
“It’s just a snapshot in time,” he says.