Solomon D. Butcher Photograph Collection
The Solomon D. Butcher Collection comprises nearly 3,500 glass plate negatives crafted between 1886 and 1912. It was the photographer’s intention to record the process of homesteading, which he shrewdly recognized as a transient, yet important, epoch in the story of the American West. Between 1886 and 1891, Butcher generated nearly 1,500 images in Custer County, Nebraska, a large county on the eastern edge of the state’s geographically unique Sand Hills.
Butcher took this tremendous volume of work and produced Pioneer History of Custer County, Nebraska, in 1901. The success of this book, one of the few successes in the photographer’s life, inspired him to expand the effort to surrounding counties, which swelled the collection’s volume to its present size. In 1904 he produced Sod Houses or the Development of the Great American Plains: A Pictorial History of the Men and Means that have Conquered this Wonderful Country.
The collection was purchased by the Nebraska State Historical Society in 1912. Butcher was hired by then Superintendent Addison Sheldon to document the collection. During part of January and February of 1916, Butcher added names and locations to many of his photographs and wrote a number of historical vignettes not included in his Pioneer History of Custer County.
The Butcher collection is best known for more than 1,000 photographs of the distinctive sod house. But these photographs are far more than studies of an architectural curiosity. Because his photographs are densely packed both in time and space, they articulate the whole process of settlement. The 1880 federal census shows Custer County with a population of 2,902. A special state census taken in 1885, the year before Butcher began his documentary effort, shows that the population had exploded to 6,710. The census of 1910, taken two years before the collection came to the Nebraska State Historical Society, reveals a population of 15,961. If one assumes that four persons appear in each of the 1,456 photographs that Butcher took in Custer County during this period, he would have photographed 5,824 of the county’s citizens, or roughly one-third of them. Because the bulk of the work was done prior to 1900, the actual number is nearer to half. The sheer volume of pictures taken in a restricted geographic area in a short period of time is very significant because it allows for in-depth analysis. Researchers can draw important conclusions about the process of homesteading and the conditions under which these people lived. The photographs document the changes wrought by human hands as people first build simple shelters, then break the land, then add outbuildings and equipment, then build larger, more permanent homes, and finally render the once-wild land tame.
Solomon D. Butcher was born in Burton, Virginia, on January 24, 1856. In 1860 Solomon’s father moved his family to Winona, Illinois, where the father got a job with the Illinois Central Railroad pumping water for their locomotives. Young Butcher completed his high school education there in 1874 and became an apprentice to a tintypist to learn the art and science of photography. He enrolled in the Henry Military School in Henry, Illinois, for the winter term of 1875-76, but soon moved on and for the next four years worked as a traveling salesman for a firm in Clyde, Ohio.
In 1880 Butcher’s father abandoned his secure job with the railroad to take a homestead in Custer County, Nebraska. The decision came as a surprise to the young Butcher, but having grown tired of a salesman’s life, he chose to move west with his father. In March 1880 Solomon, his father, his brother George, and brother-in-law J.R. Wabel set out on the trek from Illinois to Nebraska, seven hundred miles away. Driving two covered wagons, the party rose before daybreak and traveled as long as light remained. At this pace they averaged a scant one hundred miles per week. By the end of April they reached northeastern Custer County, where Solomon and his father each took a claim. Shelter was an immediate concern. A wagon cover over a hole in the ground served as temporary housing. By his own admission Butcher was ill suited for the pioneering life. “I soon came to the conclusion,” he said, “that 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 for 75 cents a day, even if there was a ‘gintleman’ on top of the wall to do the work, was a fool.” After a short two-week occupancy, Butcher turned his land back to the government.
In the winter and spring of 1881-82, Butcher attended the newly formed Minnesota Medical College in Minneapolis. The experience served only to introduce him to his wife to be, Lillie Barber Hamilton. In October of 1882 Butcher took his bride back to Nebraska. Solomon became a school teacher and with his modest salary managed to save and borrow enough money to acquire land, erect an unimposing structure, and purchase photographic equipment. His new building proved to be the first photographic gallery in Custer County and was vividly described in his Pioneer History of Custer County, Nebraska. Lillie and Solomon lived in the studio until September 1883, when he added living quarters next to the studio, constructed of sod.
Over the next several years Butcher moved his family from town to town never quite avoiding financial ruin. In 1886, perhaps driven by despair or fear of returning to the physical life of farming, Butcher seized on an idea: he would produce a photographic history of Custer County. Within two weeks Butcher arranged with seventy-five farmers to take their picture for the history. This initial response convinced Butcher’s father to loan him a wagon and Butcher began the odyssey that has become his legacy to this nation. Travel was complicated. Roads, if they existed at all, consisted of little more than ruts. He would journey for hours to reach the home of a family he wished to photograph, and often accepted food, lodging, and the stabling of his horses in exchange for a print. As he traveled, he supported himself with subscriptions and donations that various citizens made to the project, as well as by the sale of photographs.
Between 1886 and 1911 Butcher continued to photograph. The success of his Pioneer History of Custer County, Nebraska was his greatest achievement during his lifetime. As the years went by the size of the collection continued to grow, but he was unable to raise the funds to publish histories for the surrounding counties. He continued to move his family and with each move the size and weight of the collection became enormous. Butcher photographed on full plates (61/2 x 81/2 inch glass). For years Butcher stored the plates in his house, but in 1911 he intended to move his family to Texas and taking the plates was impossible. He made inquiries with Addison Sheldon, Superintendent of the Nebraska State Historical Society, but it took another year before the Society was able to acquire the funds to purchase the collection.
Solomon D. Butcher was a truly insightful photographer, but he died never realizing the full impact of his photographs.
Biographical information is taken from Solomon D. Butcher: Photographing the American Dream by John Carter, published by the University of Nebraska Press, 1985.