SEDALIA — Jeff Smith is a man transformed by a unique glimpse into Sedalia's past.
Smith, a manufacturing specialist for 31 years with Hayes Lemmerz International in Sedalia, is the son of former city councilman and civic leader E.B. Smith. Jeff Smith recalled a Lion's Club meeting his father had in Kansas City in 1971. He said it was by chance that "someone was there at the meeting that knew my father and knew he used to do a lot of photography ... and knew he was from Sedalia, and they gave this box of plates to my father because they knew he would do something with them — they didn't need to be in Kansas City." The gift included some 400 4-by-5-inch glass photographic negative plates.
More than 35 years later Jeff Smith released "Moments in Time," his 2009 book featuring prints of the pictures and the culmination of the research the plates inspired. The book includes a range of photos accompanied by clippings from The Sedalia Democrat, the Sedalia Bazoo and The Sedalia Capitol, all newspapers of the day in the city.
The negatives, taken by former Sedalia City Clerk and Pettis County Sheriff W.O.B. Dixon and his two sons, Charles and William, date from 1896 to 1904 and feature a life and times that modern Sedalians would barely recognize. From bustling streetscapes to snapshots of the boys cutting wood with hand saws, to the construction of the Sedalia Public Library with the spires of Sacred Heart Church towering in the background, Smith's journey has been inspired both by the intrigue of the past and his wish to honor the memory of his own father, who passed away in 2007.
"The thing that got me is I spent so much time focusing on the pictures — studying them, cleaning them, fixing the images on the computer — it almost transformed me back into time," Smith said. "I just felt like I could look out the window and see a horse and buggy go by. It just took me to a different time."
After his father's funeral, Smith said he had a conversation with Mary McLaughlin, whose family operates a funeral home in Sedalia, to thank her for the service. Finding a common interest in civic affairs, especially downtown Sedalia, Smith said he returned a few days later with 11-by-14-inch prints of the photos and shared them with McLaughlin.
Smith said: "She is someone who really encouraged me to pursue this and follow through with it. She was one of the first people I had shared these photos with. It was my gift to her. I ended up adopting her as my coach to keep me going and help me see this through to the end."
Smith and his father shared an interest in photography, but were never quite sure what to do with the negatives — by then, nearly 100-year-old technology that proved difficult to reproduce with modern processes. When his father retired to Florida in the 1990s, he gave them to Smith and his journey began. Each negative was kept in a separate envelope with a few handwritten notes about the image's subject.
In 2004, a friend of Smith's who worked for Eastman Kodak contacted him and told him that the necessary technology now existed.
Smith sent two plates to his friend, who helped him determine the scanning requirements.
"Actually, because of the size and quality of the negatives, this technology is actually superior to what we have today," Smith said. "So then I ended up with a bunch of really nice 11-by-14 prints — but the question was 'What do you do with them now?'"
With McLaughlin's encouragement, Smith decided to pull from the thousands of pages of press clippings and selected photos and created his book to honor his father.
Smith said his first clue came from a picture in the series whose caption read simply "Our House 208 South Prospect." He looked through city directories and found that the Dixons had lived at the house.
Smith said: "I didn't want to re-write history. I'm not a historian. I wanted to find things that were associated to these pictures. A lot of history books are the author's interpretation. This isn't my interpretation, this is what (reporters) did 100 years ago. It became a passion of mine to find out who these people were, and I found it so interesting when I got started that it is just hard to stop."
He was surprised at the size and activity of turn-of-the-century Sedalia, as well as the industrious spirit that kept the city's economic engine going. He points to a picture of workers raising one of the columns for the library, noting that "they didn't have machines or cranes — they are raising that with a rope and pulleys and a lot of muscle and hard work." Another shot shows a horse-drawn wagon equipped with a grader blade trying to smooth out the rutted, muddy surface of Main Street.
"It amazed me the things we take for granted that they would have worked for hours on — and worked hard," Smith said. "Can you imagine having to lift one of those columns or run a road grader like that?" Smith continues to research the photos and is contemplating a second book.