Nancy Plain is the author of numerous children’s books, including This Strange Wilderness: The Life and Art of John James Audubon (2015) and Light on the Prairie: Solomon D. Butcher, Photographer of Nebraska’s Pioneer Days (2012), winner of the Spur Award for Best Western Juvenile Nonfiction, the Nebraska Book Award for Youth Nonfiction and the Will Rogers Medallion Award. An exhibit featuring the work of noted author and photographer Solomon D. Butcher is now open until October at The Frank House on the University of Nebraska at Kearney campus.
“Any man that would leave the luxuries of a boarding house where they had hash every day and a salary of $125 a month to lay Nebraska sod…[is] a fool,” wrote Solomon Butcher as he labored to build his parents’ sod house in Nebraska’s Custer County. In 1880, Butcher had followed his family west from Illinois to claim land made available in the Homestead Act of 1862. But homesteading was grueling work—laying sod, tending crops under the blazing prairie sun, and innumerable other daily tasks. So when it came time to excavate a dugout on his own 160-acre claim, Butcher lost all patience. At twenty-four years old and a bachelor he quickly decided that he, “was not about to keep batch” for the five years the government required for a homesteader to prove up his land for final possession. Butcher abandoned his claim after only two weeks and fled to Minnesota to try for a career as a doctor. When his plan failed, he headed back west, surprising his family when he returned to Nebraska accompanied by his new wife, Lillie, who he had met while studying medicine. “I had just seen enough of the Wild West to unfit me for living contentedly in the East,” he admitted.
Not that the self-described “tenderfoot” fared better farmer the second time around. As a teenager he had learned photography, and now his hobby became a welcome diversion from pioneer toils. He and Lillie built their own sod house and converted part of it into a photography studio. When anyone in Custer County asked for a photograph, Butcher recalled, “I dropped my hoe and made it, and went back to the field again.”
Butcher dropped his hoe for good in 1886 when he dreamed up his “history scheme.” He would compile a massive book, a photographic history of the pioneers of Custer County. Along with pictures, he would include his subjects’ biographies and recollections. From the moment he conceived the plan, he wrote, “I was so elated that I lost all desire for rest.” And he believed he had no time to lose, for he could see that the sod-house era would not last much longer. Just that year, the first train had arrived in Custer County in Broken Bow. As the railroad inched its way across the Great Plains everyone knew that it would bring people, building supplies, and any number of mercantile goods to transform the wild grasslands.
Too poor to buy a wagon, Butcher talked his father into lending him one. He rigged up a darkroom in the back of it, loaded his heavy wooden camera and its glass-plate negatives, hitched his horse to the whole outfit, and took off roaming. Hardworking sodbusters looked askance at the failed farmer. But Solomon was impervious. “Some called me a fool,” he wrote, “others a crank, but I was too much interested in my work to pay any attention to such people.”
Crisscrossing the rolling prairie, he documented Nebraska’s pioneers along with the things that were important to them: farm families posed in their fields or in front of their sod houses, ranchers on horseback surveyed milling herds of cattle, teachers and pupils gathered in front of one-room schoolhouses. Butcher took photos of everyone and everything that was part of life on the plains. One constant background was the wide land itself, reaching far into the distance. Although he concentrated on Custer County, he also ventured out to other Nebraska counties and up to South Dakota, where he photographed Native Americans on the Rosebud reservation. So it was that during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, the roving photographer created the most complete record of the sod-house era ever made.
Pioneer History of Custer County, and Short Sketches of Early Life in Nebraska was finally published in 1901. Although he had achieved his great goal, Butcher continued to take photographs. And as Nebraska settled up and changed with the new century, so, naturally, did Butcher’s images. Among his most fascinating are the before and after shots he took of his fellow pioneers. In the 1880s, he had photographed the John Downey family standing in front of their small soddy. In 1904, Butcher photographed them again, but this time the backdrop was a spacious and elegantly carved two-story frame house. Downey, who had come to the plains with twelve dollars and two mules, now owned a thousand-acre ranch. At the turn of the century, Butcher had established a new photography studio in Kearney. Whereas his early photographs captured settlements that were only isolated clusters of tents and shacks—islands on the land—his photographs of Kearney and other towns in the early 1900s show telephone lines, street lights, and the first automobiles. And out on the farms, he recorded the latest steam-powered farm equipment. As Butcher had predicted, pioneer days had come to an end. But in more than 3,000 extraordinary pictures, he had preserved for all time their history. Each one of his photographs tells a story about the settlers’ way of life—how they worked, what they built, and what they loved.
All quotes in this blog are from:
Butcher, Solomon D. Pioneer History of Custer County, and Short Sketches of Early Days in Nebraska. Broken Bow, Nebraska: S.D. Butcher and Ephraim S. Finch, 1901.