Wednesday March 22 12:02 PM ET
By DAVID DISHNEAU, Associated Press Writer
GRANTSVILLE, Md. (AP) - It has been 70 years since Maxine Broadwater dutifully dumped into a creek a trove of photographic negatives now recognized as one of Maryland's historical treasures.
The thousands of images comprised the bulk of her uncle Leo J. Beachy's life's work, documenting not only the people and places of early 20th-century Garrett County, but also Beachy's stubborn pursuit of his craft despite his crippling multiple sclerosis.
Broadwater was just 5 years old when she helped her brothers destroy the glass negatives so they could turn their late uncle's studio into a chicken house.
Fifty years later, she was given about 2,700 Beachy negatives that had been gathering dust in a neighbor's shed. Broadwater, now 74, has devoted much of the past two decades to preserving those images of children, farmers and small-town Appalachia.
"When I was a child, I did exactly what I was told. I'm hoping Uncle Lee forgave me for that. I'm trying to make it up to him now,'' she said.
The pictures have been celebrated since their discovery. William Stapp, curator of photography for the National Portrait Gallery, praised them as "entrancing pictures, composed with naive charm'' in his essay for the 1984 book, "Maryland Time Exposures, 1840-1940.''
A 1990 spread in LIFE magazine exposed Beachy's work to the world and paid Broadwater $6,500. She said that fee and a $500 grant from the Garrett County Arts Council are the only preservation funds she has received.
The images were honored again in January, when the Maryland Commission for Celebration 2000 named the collection an endangered treasure, eligible to compete for state preservation funding. The agency will award grants in July.
And Beachy's photos will lead off "Images of Maryland,'' an hour-long special airing March 23 on Maryland Public Television about the work of six great Maryland photographers.
"When I first saw them, what struck me was how unposed and natural his portraits were, not anything like I had seen or associated in my own mind with what photographs looked like at the turn of the century,'' said Adele Rush, executive producer of the MPT program.
Despite the praise, Broadwater said her real need is for help in preserving the 5-by-7 and 3-by-5-inch glass plates. The negatives are stored in two bookcases in a spare bedroom of her farmhouse, mostly in the same crumbling cardboard boxes in which Beachy stacked them 75 to 100 years ago.
Packed with each plate in the cigar-box-sized containers is a piece of thin brown paper on which Beachy recorded the photo subject and date.
Broadwater initially separated the negatives with slips of acid-free paper. Now she is improving on that job, folding new, larger slips that enable the glass plates to be stored upright in acid-free boxes for easier cataloging.
The job has been slowed by an illness in the family that recently took Broadwater away from home for an extended period, and by her own physical limitations.
"I'm having eye problems,'' she said. "I can work only about three hours at a time and I have to give my eyes a rest. I only hope my eyes can hold out long enough that I can get this finished.''
Determination runs in her blood. When Beachy's illness made him unable to walk, he hired helpers to carry him to and from his wagon so he could make his pictures.
Broadwater's sister Gladys Warnick, 82, a frequent photo subject, recalls Beachy's struggle to get around.
"What I remember most about him was the way he would get back and forth from his house to the studio. My Aunt Kate would carry him piggyback. She'd do that about three times a day,'' she said.
Glenn Tolbert, a Garrett County filmmaker, nominated the Beachy collection for the Save Maryland Treasures program. He said Broadwater's effort to preserve the pictures is part of what makes them special.
"It's an incredible slice of life of Appalachian Maryland right after
the turn of the century,'' Tolbert said. "There are just heart-tugging
photos of the fun kids have in any setting but there are also some shots
of the harshness of life, and we wouldn't know anything about them if it
wasn't for Maxine being almost fanatical about trying to compensate for
the sins of her youth.''