November 17, 2012

Old photography technique used in Athens to preserve memory of town's historic buildings

Scott Anton, former curator of the Athens Historical Society, uses wet plate photography to take pictures of fast-disappearing structures in town

By Doug Harlow dharlow@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

WEST ATHENS -- The oldest house in the town of Athens is falling down.

click image to enlarge

Scott Anton prepares his view camera, which uses glass-plate negatives, to photograph the John Wentworth home in Athens, which was built in 1800. Anton is documenting the old home, as it may be torn down next year.

Staff photo by David Leaming

click image to enlarge

Scott Anton's interpretation of the Wentworth home, using his vintage photographic process.

Contributed photo

Additional Photos Below

The windows are broken, the foundation sill is rotting and porcupines are consuming the floors and wooden stairs.

It's a plain two-story home that was built on 300 acres in 1800 by John Wentworth, a Revolutionary War soldier from Massachusetts. Wentworth settled in the wilderness near Iron Bound Pond in 1798. He built the house and raised a family with his wife, Hannah Elwell.

The current owners want to tear the house down and parcel out the hand-hewn wooden beams, the 1-inch thick doors, wooden mantle pieces and wide floor boards.

Or they will have the Fire Department burn it down.

Scott Anton, the former curator of the Athens Historical Society, said he has begun preserving images of the old house and other early buildings in town so the oldest places are not forgotten

He is doing that using wet plate photography, a style of picture-taking from the mid-1800s.

The photographs, developed in a solution on glass plates using original, antique lenses and a bellows camera, are similar to vintage ones used in documentaries by Emmy Award-winning director Ken Burns, Anton said.

"In any of Ken Burns' features -- the Civil War -- all of the photos were this form of photography," said Anton, 47, who grew up in West Athens. "It came out in 1851, so it was the cat's meow at the time."

The photographic process is known technically as wet plate collodion, in which collodion solution is used as a binder in a bath of silver nitrate, according to Anton, a farmer and logger who now lives in neighboring Solon. The silver attaches into the layers of the sticky collodion where it becomes light sensitive and must remain wet.

A glass plate is secured in a plate holder and placed inside the camera. The lens is trained on the subject and the plate is exposed to the subject for six to eight seconds. The image materializes onto the glass plate.

"It's my art and my interest always has been history," he said. "Historically, it's cool to do it in this form. I like the process. I thought it was a good way to preserve some history other than just going out with a digital camera."

The John Wentworth house is on Pond Road in West Athens, a mile from unpaved North Road and 5 1/2 miles from Athens village on state Route 150.

Dave and Joan Townley, both municipal park rangers in Danvers, Mass., bought the old Wentworth farm in 1959 and used it mostly as a seasonal retreat.

"We have lots and lots and lots of memories in that old house," Dave Townley, 70, said by phone. "The memories include our honeymoon 48 years ago. All of our kids basically have grown up there, vacationed there."

Townley said the first thing he did with the old place was put a metal roof on the building, which helped preserve it. He said the house fell into disrepair beginning in the late 1980s when their finances prevented upgrades to the property.

"We can't leave it there -- we're concerned about our liability at this point," he said. "We are offering the building to the community for somebody to take it apart and use parts of it. If that can't be done, we're going to have to invite the Fire Department to come up and do an exercise and burn it down."

Townley said his local property manager, Bob Hubbard, of Skowhegan, will supervise any salvage work.

Townley was Hubbard's teacher at Essex Agricultural and Technical High School in Danvers in 1974, and they have been friends ever since.

Hubbard, 60, park manager at Lake George Regional Park in Skowhegan and Canaan, said during recent years many of the original furnishings of the Wentworth house have been stolen, including the iron kitchen sink and hand pump.

He said the 24-foot-long wooden beams remain straight as an arrow. He agreed that the structure has become a potential liability.

"Some of the wood should be saved, such as the mantles and the doors," he said. "Another thing would be to come in here with a camera and take pictures of the construction details to be used in an exhibit for the Athens Historical Society."

Joan Townley, 69, said she also is sad to see the building go.

"We are very sad to see the demise of this historic building," she said. "It's important to us. We've waited this long in the hopes of someone having a sensitivity to the historic value."

Doug Harlow -- 612-2367

dharlow@centralmaine.com

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Bob Hubbard examines the hearth around a fireplace in the John Wentworth home, built in 1800 in Athens. The home has not been lived in for decades and may be torn down next year.

Staff photo by David Leaming

  


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