Amateur photographer preserved history

Accompanying my column last week was a picture staged and photographed by Granville Blankenship in January 1920. That particular picture of pelts mounted on a barn won him a $4 cash prize.

Granville described himself as an amateur photographer, according to his daughter, Mila Elam, of Bear Grove Township.

Mila and her late husband, Loren Elam, were my ‘end of the road’ neighbors when I was a newlywed in 1976. My husband, Dale, and I rented a house not far from the Elam homestead for a little over three years, and we became good friends.

It came as quite a surprise when Nick Alton called my attention to a collection of photographs taken by Mila’s father early in the 1900s.

Not long after, I telephoned Mila and arranged a visit. She explained that her father shot the photographs over a number of years, and while she could identify some of the people in the pictures, many remained unknown.

Granville traveled around the country taking pictures of his neighbors, relatives and friends, and that makes it more difficult in assigning names to all the faces in the stack of photos.

In 1994, Mila shared the photos with Charles Mills as he began to put together Vandalia’s 175th commemorative book, “Vandalia Remembered.” Although Granville saw himself as an amateur, Mills, who was a professional, chose several of the pictures for inclusion in the book.

Granville was there with camera in hand to photograph the metal span bridge over the Kaskaskia River before they blew it up in 1921 and sold it for scrap.

When they brought in a ferry to replace it until a new span could be built, Granville captured it on film. He was there, too, when construction began on the new Kaskaskia River bridge.

Neighbors and their families are pictured in 25 of his photographs. Of these, nearly half show the family seated or standing in front of their house. Many of them are unidentified, such as the picture where the father of the family is posed with his fiddle and bow.

One of my favorite pictures is of a woman standing in the door of her log cabin, with its thick chinking. Frank Elmore, from north of Mulberry Grove, holds the reins of his ‘fine stallion’ for Granville’s camera, and ‘Grandpa’ Paradee, who sits on his horse as though born to the saddle, also posed for Granville’s camera.

Among the family pictures that either Granville or Mila were able to put names to were the Thomas Mansfield family; the Rev. Jesse Carlock and wife Cora and sons, Virgil and Arthur; the George Hunter family; the Henry Blankenship family; the Himes family; and Granville’s parents, Francis Marion and Tirza Carpenter Blankenship.

The Hurricane Church was also a subject for Granville’s lens. At the time of the church’s dedication, he photographed the congregation in front of the building, the buggies parked to the side.

Most of the neighborhood schools depended on local photographers for their annual school picture. Included in Granville’s collection were classes from Bear Creek, Rush and Browning schools. Browning was the only one with a date, Feb. 20, 1914. Herbert Beesley was the teacher.

While Granville Blankenship was trying out various lighting techniques, exposures and settings, he succeeded in preserving the history of his community and its people.

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