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An evening with spies

  • DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS Citizen volunteers scrutinize anonymous early photos of the Tamaqua area, hoping to find clues to help identify either time or place.
    DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS Citizen volunteers scrutinize anonymous early photos of the Tamaqua area, hoping to find clues to help identify either time or place.
Published July 09. 2010 05:00PM

Any detective knows that one of the best ways to obtain information is to enlist the help of the general public.

Many sets of eyes can see what one pair cannot.

That's the idea behind the successful 'I Spy' program of the Tamaqua Historical Society.

Several times a year, the society sets up tables inside Downtown Tamaqua headquarters and scatters hundreds of anonymous photos on the table tops.

The public is invited to stop in and examine the pictures to see what they can identify.

At a recent evening of 'I Spy' activities, a variety of local sleuths could be seen poring over the early images.

What prompts the average citizen to give up an evening in front of the television to pay a visit to the local historical society?

The reasons are as varied as the folks themselves.

Some showed up just to enjoy the old images and wax nostalgic. Others said they came out of curiosity. They said they simply wanted to see what was going on. But if there is one thing they had in common, it's that viewing old images is a very personal, enriching experience.

For Lee Ann Handwerk, the evening was an interesting diversion from the routine. It provided an opportunity to see photos that relate to her mother's childhood. Handwerk's mother is the former Gail Loch who attended Tamaqua Area Junior and Senior High Schools, graduating in 1973. Gail married Donald 'Wimp' Handwerk of Lehighton and the family resides in the Andreas area.

Others, like Tamaqua resident Chris Motz, were there for serious research. Motz has been studying local history for years and hopes to publish a series of minibooks or pamphlets about various areas of Tamaqua's past. Motz has a keen sense of history and a good grasp of what life was like in early Tamaqua.

For Motz, the evening provided an opportunity to see what kinds of photos are available. The session allowed him to refine his approach and add to his understanding of daily life in days gone by.

Bill Harleman, president of the Lansford Historical Society, was on hand to check out the activities. Harleman, a Lehighton native, moved to Hometown last June where he and his wife purchased a residence on Oxford Street. In a sense, the evening helped Harleman to get acclimated to his new surroundings.

Two other citizen detectives who walked into the project were Chris Wetterau Santore and Diane Derr.

Derr was surprised to find her own photograph among the images.

"I found my picture from St. Peter and Paul's Church when they had the May Queen crowning," said Derr.

It might be a startling experience to find your own image included in a collection of historic photos, but those in attendance agreed that the May Queen photo rightfully can be classified as recent history. Besides, Derr is still the picture of youth.

As for Santore, her family owned Keilman's Shoe Store on West Broad Street. Anything pertaining to Keilman's interested her. She was hoping to perhaps come across images taken inside the store, or maybe photos of the store's owners and staff.

"I found an outside picture," she said.

One image that drew considerable comment was taken in the early 1970s and showed a migrant worker preparing to stab another migrant worker during an argument on West Broad Street. The two were in town when their train stopped. They may have been passing through Tamaqua while pursuing employment opportunities.

The dramatic black-and-white image was captured by the late Roy Ackerman, photographer for the Tamaqua Evening Courier. It brought back memories for Dale Freudenberger, society president, who was on hand for the episode and recalled the commotion it caused in the downtown. Freudenberger was the one who summoned help as the conflict unfolded.

"They were headed to the Bavarian Festival by train," said Freudenberger. "It happened in front of Depos's Restaurant and the Texas Lunch. I went for help. I went to the police station (on Rowe Street). Charles "Chick" Moyer was chief at that time."

All of those attending the event agreed that 'I Spy' continues to provide a relaxing evening of entertainment and education.

It's a daunting task because the society owns massive collections of old photos and plate glass negatives due to an early, thriving photo and portraiture business that began prior to the Civil War.

It includes the priceless Civil War-era collection of David Baily's photographs and glass negatives; and the later Elmer Bailey photographic collection. The father-son Baily team visually archived the community from 1861 to 1940.

Their studio was housed in a Victorian building at the corner of West Broad and Berwick streets, now the site of Wachovia Bank.

When the building was razed, the plate glass negatives were salvaged by Pat Davison. Pat's wife, the former Karen Mundy, grew up on Rowe Street, just steps away from the site. Both Pat and Karen recognized the importance of the collection to the community. The Davisons turned over the entire collection to the Tamaqua Historical Society.

The photographic work of the Bailys was followed up by the Roy M. Ackerman photograph and negative collection, spanning 1940 to 1972.

Commercial photography was still in its infancy during the Civil War years, and Tamaqua is one of few communities that can boast of owning a professional photographic archive spanning the majority of the town's existence.

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