Candy Moulton: Reading the West 8-27-12

When Solomon Butcher came to Nebraska in 1880 and claimed a homestead near that of his father, he must have already known that he was not suited to the hard work of proving up on the land in an area as difficult to put roots down in as Custer County. So it is little surprise that he left after a period and returned with just days to spare in order to build a “house” and take up residency before losing his homestead claim.

Butcher’s first home on the prairie was a dugout, similar to the structures built by many early Great Plains residents who had few resources with which to build, and who found that “Nebraska marble” — the tough sod of the prairie — was not only adequate, but in many cases the superior building material in the region. Butcher staked his claim, built his home, plowed, and planted. He married and started a family, but the idea of making his living form working the land didn’t sit that well.

Instead, he turned to the pursuit that was his passion — photography. He began traveling around his neighborhood, then Custer County, and ultimately farther afield across Nebraska, South Dakota and other states, capturing the images of the pioneer people with his camera. The photographs he made have become icons of the Plains.

His passion for photography was matched only by his passion for the stories of the people, particularly after he came up with his “history scheme.” He would travel the prairie landscape for years not only taking photographs, but also gathering the stories of the pioneers. His intention was to write a history and photography book that captured their spirit, struggle and successes.

Nancy Plain tells of Solomon Butcher’s quest in “Light on the Prairie: Solomon D. Butcher, Photographer of Nebraska’s Pioneer Days,” a biography written for young adult readers, but one that will appeal strongly to adults. Two time Spur Award winning writer, Plain is eloquent, detailed, precise, and evocative in her descriptions of Butcher’s life.

Though styled as a biography, this book is much, much more. It is a celebration of the imagery of one man’s photographic eye, and it is a history of Nebraska and to a broader extent a telling of the history of the homestead era, westward expansion, and the difficulties the nation — particularly Nebraska — faced in the last quarter of the 19th century from the struggle over slave and free statehood, to financial depressions, the coining of free silver and the rise of the Populist movement.

Plain has again taken a subject, explored it deeply, and expressed the nuances of the story in a way that both educates and entertains. Published by the University of Nebraska Press/Bison Books, this is a book that belongs in every Nebraska school, and the homes of anyone who wants to understand our western homestead legacy and Great Plains history better.

The fact that it is the story of one of the West’s most indomitable photographers, who faced great loss in his career, but simply picked up, recreated, and revitalized his effort to preserve the plains families’ stories, is second only to the understanding it gives us of the man behind photographs we have all seen in books, documentary films, exhibits, and so much more. Just envision a pioneer family with possessions ranging from horses and wagons, the milk cow, dogs, kids, mules and household treasures like an organ or a special chair carefully posed before their sod house, and you will be able to recognize a photograph by Solomon Butcher.

I can only imagine how difficult it was for Nancy Plain to decide which of the thousands of photographs Solomon Butcher took that she could include in her book since his collection (now held by the Nebraska State Historical Society) includes 1,500 images.

If I have a criticism, it is that the book does not have a glossary nor an index. Throughout her text, Plain introduces YA readers to the unique lexicon of the Plains, and such additions, would be great resources for students and teachers. This criticism aside, I can heartily say this is a fantastic book. Watch for it to win awards. ❖