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Cataloging scenes of Statesville’s past

By Jim McNally
Statesville Record & Landmark

STATESVILLE Father-and-son photographers, William and Ben Stimson, took thousands upon thousands of pictures around the Statesville area in the last century.

The father, who was better known by his first two names — William Jasper — started as a professional photographer in 1888, when negatives were glass plates and photography was a much more complicated affair.

William set up a studio in Statesville in 1890 and was among the city’s top photographers a year later when the infamous Bostian Train Wreck occurred in August 1891. Most of the early photos seen of the wreckage at the bottom of the bridge were taken by Stimson. His photos of the scene, in which 25 people were killed, were published around the state and nation.

But the Stimsons produced tens of thousands of photographs in their Statesville studios. And by the time Ben died in 1969 at the age of 76, as many as 200,000 photos and negatives were left behind in his West Broad Street studio.

Family members were at a loss with what to do with the enormous body of work.

“We didn’t know where to start,” said Ben’s daughter, Betty Boyd, who recalled her father as a smart and multi-faceted man.

“He was very intelligent,” she said. “He loved his work but he also had a lot of time for my mother and his children. He loved to read and speak French to anyone who could understand him. He never told us Mother Goose stories at bedtime. It was always Greek mythology.”

And he was a prolific photographer.

After his death, Boyd and her two siblings donated a number of their father’s materials to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Other photos and negatives went to family members and friends. Some are in the possession of Statesville historian Steve Hill.

But still more than 100,000 of them remained at the studio and were about to be disposed of when possession of the studio changed hands. Those photographs ended up at the Iredell County Library in 2008.

For the past several years, history librarian Joel Reese and other library staff have been scanning the photos and negatives into the library’s database. So far, they have made it through about 64,000 of the Stimsons’ works.

Reese said the Stimson photos account for about three-fourths of the library’s ever-growing photo inventory.

“When I got here in 2002, our collection consisted of a shoe box containing about 18 photographs,” Reese said. “Today I’d estimate we have over 130,000 photographs and negatives.”

Reese said the Stimsons were the “Olan Mills of their day.” He added that for several decades, “The Stimson Studio was ‘the place’ to have your photograph taken in Iredell County.”

Many of those photos can be seen by visiting the library’s website at www.iredell.lib.nc.us and clicking on “Flickr.”

Reese said information is lacking on many of the photos and he encourages folks to visit the site and examine the images to help fill in some gaps.

“We are hoping that people viewing the photos can help us identify come some of the people and place where they were taken,” he said.

People with information can contact Reese via email at jreese@iredell.lib.nc.us.

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