A Gentle Vision

Leo J. Beachy's photographs, nearly lost forever, capture a simple place and time in Western Maryland. Thanks to preservation efforts, we reap what he saw.

March 08, 2000|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Leo J. Beachy's photography has deep roots in the rocky soil of Western Maryland, where he worked as a youth on the farm called Mount Nebo.

"Here it is I learned what it is to plow and sow and till and reap," he writes in his brief, engaging autobiography.

And here it was that he took pictures of the people and countryside with great, homey affection and subtle, playful art. He photographed the awkward graduates of one-room schools, farm families a-haying and at vast family reunions, maidens in white with their bow-tied beaus and barefoot children at play at harvest time. It was the beginning of the 20th century. The sweeping, rolling vistas of Garrett County and its long narrow roads stretched to the horizon and the promised land beyond.

Leo Beachy was born in 1874 in a house built by his father on the 553-acre Mount Nebo farm, which was named after the Jordan River headland from which Moses saw the Promised Land and then died without crossing over. In his autobiography, Beachy says the farmhouse, on a pleasant hillside near Grantsville, overlooked "promising prospects and beautiful views."

He left a remarkable record of those views and prospects and the people who lived within them. He made photographs for more than two decades after 1905, when he turned to photography from school teaching. He often made more than 10,000 photos a year; few if any were taken more than 50 miles from the Mount Nebo farm. But only about 2,700 remain.

"He was a very fine photographer," says Tom Beck, the curator of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's Kuhn library and gallery, which houses a major collection of 1.5 million photographs.

"I think his place in history derives from having left a charming and artful record of his world," Beck says. "There are other records of small communities, but they have to be pieced together. This one has a cohesiveness that comes from the point of view of a single individual.

"Beachy seems to have arranged his life so that he had time [for photography]. He was always looking for photographs. It was his passion."

A selection of his pictures will appear in an hourlong Maryland Public Television special, "Images of Maryland: 1900-2000," later this month. Photos by A. Aubrey Bodine, Marion Warren, Irving Phillips Sr., Roger Miller and Middleton Evans also will be included.

In constant good spirits

Beachy made his pictures despite the severe and increasing disability of multiple sclerosis that had its onset when he was still in his teens. He was only 53 when he died in 1927.

"He was all the more courageous, I think, in being able to make the pictures he did," Beck says. "To get to the places he photographed, I understand sometimes he had to be carried. And if there wasn't someone to carry him, he crawled. He dragged himself to the position he wanted to be to take the picture."

Beachy seems never to have complained about his illness, or lost his transcendent good spirits. He was a prolific writer of everything from his autobiography to poetry, from newspaper articles to inspirational essays, all of which had a style of enduring, gentle composure. In 1923, he wrote of his illness with ironic humor:

"I have taken medicine by the barrel and as for doctors I have been drugged by the allopaths, rubbed by the osteopaths and bilked by the quack-o-paths. They have doped me with castor oil, rubbed me with sweet oil and soaked me in hard oil. I've slept with my head to the north for polarity, between a pair of electric sheets and with a bundle of shingles for a pillow for cedaracity. In fact, I've tried everything from soothsays to the Ouija board. Now if you know anything new, just trot it out and I'll put it through the paces."

One of his nieces, Maxine Beachy Broadwater, has done the most to preserve and catalog Beachy's glass plate negatives. She still lives in Grantsville (pop. 504), where she was the librarian for 31 years.

"Maxine saved this archive," Beck says. "We would not have these pictures to appreciate if it had not been for her insight that this is something that should be retrieved."

Broadwater, who was only 2 years old when her uncle died, doesn't remember him. But her sister, Gladys Beachy Warnick, 82, who now lives in Essex, retains vivid impressions of him.

"Gladys remembers how his sister, Kate, our aunt Kate, would carry him on her back," Broadwater says.

Gladys Warnick appears in several of Beachy's surviving pictures, including one of his most charming in which she's caught bent over in a ragged, everyday, hand-me-down dress, hiding her face.

"He never lost that sort of playful creativity in the pursuit of professional photography," Beck says. "For him, making an image was a special occasion, an opportunity to be seized."

Warnick remembers her Aunt Kate as a small, thin woman who carried her brother piggy-back.

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