The Old Overholt Distillery; One of the Coolest Places I’ve Photographed

There are a handful of abandoned places worth a drive halfway across the country. The Old Overholt Distillery was one of the.

The abandoned Old Overholt Distillery in Broad Ford, Fayette County, Pennsylvania. July, 13th ,2015.

Part of the Lost Americana series. Find out more at www.LostAmericana.com Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.

As a lover of the old parts of America, this trip out east took us past farms, and country towns. Through old factory districts and past the ruins of the railroads glory days of steam. It was an amazing way to peak into the past and see the parts of towns hidden from the view of everyday life. These tracks took you into the past, because unlike the parts of most towns frequented by cars & trucks, no local authorities are demanding these areas be cleaned up and modernized. There’s no new strip malls to entice the train passengers to get off at the next stop. It’s gritty limestone retention walls, old wooden train depots now used as storage sheds for landscaping companies. Along with big brick warehouses with rotted-out wooden platforms next to a track that doesn’t connect to the main line. You can almost see the workers packing old box cars, but you don’t see that from the street.

One of the benefits of traveling by train is, unless you’re really in a hurry, being delayed isn’t that big of a deal, because well, you’re on a train. During one of the delays we had on the trip to D.C. we were practically stopped next to these hulking ruins of a factory of some sort in rural Pennsylvania. While we didn’t slow down long enough for me to get my camera, I made a note of where this place was and on my next journey out east I took a detour from Northern New York to go see it. Turns out that factory was the A. Overholt Distillery in Broad Ford, Pennsylvania.

 

The Amtrak will take you past Collensville, Pennsylvania., just a stones throw from the town of Broad Ford and the A. Overholt Distillery. Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.
The abandoned A. Overholt Distillery in Broad Ford, Fayette County, Pennsylvania. July, 13th ,2015. Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.
The abandoned A. Overholt Distillery in Broad Ford, Fayette County, Pennsylvania. July, 13th ,2015. Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.
The abandoned A. Overholt Distillery in Broad Ford, Fayette County, Pennsylvania. July, 13th ,2015. Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.
Old bridge supports over the Youghiogheny River at the abandoned A. Overholt Distillery in Broad Ford, Fayette County, Pennsylvania. July, 13th ,2015. Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.

The A. Overholt Distillery in Broad Ford was one of at least two distilleries from the brand of rye whiskey known as Old Overholt. The brand, still being made today by the Beam-Suntory company, is said to be America’s oldest continuously maintained brand whiskey. Partially due to being able to stay in business during prohibition by making rye whiskey for “medical purposes”, however not nearly at the rate it was when alcohol was legal.

Vacated sometime in the 1960s the property now sits in ruins, especially after several fires. The land looks to be owned partially by the CSX rail company and a local auto shop. A video of the interior from 2011 shows a place that most should not venture int

You can still see the intricate rails on the stairwell of the distillery through the window. The abandoned A. Overholt Distillery in Broad Ford, Fayette County, Pennsylvania. July, 13th ,2015. Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.
The abandoned A. Overholt Distillery is reflected in a puddle, Broad Ford, Fayette County, Pennsylvania. July, 13th ,2015. Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.
A view of the abandoned A. Overholt Distillery from the street in Broad Ford, Fayette County, Pennsylvania. July, 13th ,2015. Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.
The top of the tallest building at the abandoned A. Overholt Distillery in Broad Ford, Fayette County, Pennsylvania. July, 13th ,2015. Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.

Beside being the possible oldest brand of Whiskey in America, Old Overholt had some famous fans of the spirt. It was the brand wild associated with the wild west of America and Doc Holliday, Ulysses S. Grant, and J.F.K. were all said to partake in the drinking it.

An aerial view of the Overholt Distillery before the main warehouse was demolished.

The link below will take you to a blog that included a look inside the buildings.

https://swpare.blogspot.com/2011/11/abandoned-overholt-distillery-broad.html

Old Overholt Rye Whiskey

It is said that Old Overholt is America's oldest continuously produced brand of whiskey. Since 1810 the brand has been made, even during the prohibition years, as it got a special license to make limited numbers for "medicinal reasons." Owned by the Beam brand, it is currently made in Claremont, Kentucky. Quite a long was from Broad Ford, Pennsylvania. I keep a bottle in my whiskey collection because of this place.

Behind The Photo: Main Street, Buffalo Gap, South Dakota

A Storm over Main Street.Buffalo Gap, South Dakota, Main Street & 2nd St. The buildinsg from left to right were a grocery store & gas station, middle store was a barber shop and the building on the right was the railroad agent’s building. A local said you can always tell the railroad buildings because they were usually the nicest. Photographed Aug. 1st, 2014.

Sometimes I’m Just Lucky

Every now and again you just luck out. There’s a part of me that wishes Buffalo Gap, South Dakota had slot machines at the local bar when I was there, because I’m sure I’d have hit the jackpot.

After leaving the Badlands Nation Park and driving across a flat section of Western South Dakota known as the “table top”, I pulled into a town I knew nothing about except that it was on my path to Wyoming. When you see a set up like this one, still standing on Main Street in a small town, you need to pull over and get some photos of course.

As I parked I knew I had a few minutes of good light with an amazing backdrop, as storm clouds started to roll my way. Normally I like to shoot some digital shots before I make my way to the 4×5 film camera, but Mother Nature wasn’t giving me any extra time.

Just as I managed to set everything up and metered my exposure for the shot, a giant tanker truck came rumbling down the dirt road. I almost took the shot to get it in before the truck stirred up a bunch of dust, but I still wasn’t completely set up, so it looked like I was going to have to wait for the dust to settle and hope the sun was still out.

Now I’m sure many of you have never been on a movie, or TV set, but a common practice is to have the blacktop watered down. It gives you a darker color street and helps with the look of the video. They usually do this with a tanker truck that has sprinklers on the rear. To my amazement this truck coming by was a county truck spraying water on the road to help keep the dust down in town. I think I may have shouted “Yes!” really loud when I realized what good fortune I had.

Main Street Buffalo Gap, South Dakota. Taken just a few minutes after the above photo.

The end result is I have one of my all-time favorite photos now and a new favorite town. Buffalo Gap is actually one of the few places I have visited more than once in my 25 years of traveling.

Want to have a copy of Buffalo Gap, South Dakota hanging on your wall? You can help support the Lost Americana project and get a signed print of this photo at the same time. Just follow this link and pick out the size you want.

A Rare Find In Rural Kansas

Untouched for decades, I find less & less places like this each year

On Treaty Road in Ottawa County, Kansas sits a house that could have last been lived in just after the Great Depression.
Part of the Lost Americana series. 
Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.

Since I started traveling across rural America in 1995 I have always been in awe when I come across an abandoned building that has clearly been around since before the great depression.

As someone who has practically never lived in a home built after 1924 (those 2 years at a step parent’s house don’t count), I have a love an a affinity for the style & craftsmanship that went into theses places, as well as the materials. And while I’d much rather see them in good shape being taken care of, my heart almost skips a beat when I find a place built before the 1950s that is abandoned and in ruins. These are the buildings I want to photograph. These are the places I want to capture the moment in time where they gave out their last gasp. They are beautiful and obscene at the same time. Beautiful because you know there was a life and hard work that went on there. And obscene, because you look and wonder just what went wrong. What happened that this place was left to rot.

While I love the photography I’ve seen others do of abandoned malls, trailers, and mid century modern homes, there’s a certain familiarity to it and they just can’t compete with an old store front from the 1880s in my mind.

Every year though, when I return from another week’s long journey to God knows where and shake the dust of my gear and my tailgate, I feel a sense of loss. Not about the places I’ve been, but about the places I missed. The train depot that was bulldozed two years before. The grain elevator that was burned for practicing firefighters. The barn that was stripped of wood by salvagers, or the house that was destroyed by vandals. And of course the places that finally collapsed and returned to nature.

So for those of you like me. Who are still out looking. This one appears to still be standing if the Google satellite is current. Just get yourself to that giant swath of land between Interstate 80 & 70, where very few people are. Turn west when you get to the town of Oak Hill, Kansas, head on down a dirt road called Treaty and get a shot of her while she’s still standing.

Safe journeys,
Vincent Johnson

 

Part of the Lost Americana series.
Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.

Part of the Lost Americana series. 
Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.

Part of the Lost Americana series. 
Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.

An Aermotor windmill, Ottawa County, Kansas

Part of the Lost Americana series.

Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.

House, windmill & trees, Ottawa County, Kansas

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Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.

Ottawa County, Kansas

Part of the Lost Americana series.
Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.

Ottawa County, Kansas. 

Part of the Lost Americana series. 
Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.

History Erased – America’s Agricultural Legacy

When looking back on the great empires of the world their legacies loom large in their ruins. China has the Great Wall, Egypt has the pyramids, Greece has the Parthenon and Rome has its Coliseum. Where will America’s farms be?

Sure all those other societies had farmers, but under systems of dictatorships & feudal rule the land was not their own and surely the yield wasn’t either. America spread out and grew predominantly because of individuals looking to build their life & the country’s, through agriculture. The railways would follow and so would an independent spirt that has shaped the ethos of this nation. But nothing lasts forever. Someday even the Great Pyramids will crumble.

Lost Americana was started as a way of preserving that history in photos. The that glimmer that still remains in some places from the golden age of farming in America. An era that has long since past. Its legacy is in the ruins of unused abandoned barns and the small towns that dot the prairies, no longer connected by rails that literally put some of those towns on the map.

The Hale Bopp Comet will pass by Earth again in 4385. A long time, but yet only half the age of the Great Pyramids of Egypt.
Photo taken roughly April 7th, 1997.

One of the things that was very important to me when I first started documenting Lost Americana, was that the buildings had to be abandoned, or in ruins. I was after all telling the story of the ruins of America’s golden age of farming. This image, while one I have always loved, was only briefly shown with any collection I called “Lost Americana”, because while it was a barn, it was not abandoned, nor was it even old compared to the buildings I was typically shooting. If the sun was still up you’d be able to tell this was an aluminum sided barn that was still in use. The only reason I even have this image was because I was working on getting a similar shot from the abandoned home which sat right across this old stage coach road.

On Old Stage Road, along the old I&M Canal outside of Morris, Illinois. This house was what attracted me to photographing in this area, April 1997.

To no one’s surprise this old stone house has long since been removed. To my surprise the aluminum sided barn above has also been taken down. Maybe it was older that it looked. Maybe its usefulness, like so many buildings has past, and just like that two more place from America’s history have been erased. And this was just one small segment on opposite sides of a country road.

The irony in all of this is my inspiration to talk about this came about while scanning in film. Scanners have a function that helps remove dust & scratches from film. This automated function erased the comet in half of the images thinking it was dust and had I not been paying attention the Hale Bopp Comet too would have been erased from the history of this photo.

However, as you can see Hale Bopp is in these images and will be returning someday around the year 4385. A future that seems so far away, but weirdly enough is only half as long as the Great Pyramids have been around. I wonder, will they still be here? I’m pretty sure none of America’s barns will be though. Maybe just in pictures.

You can still see some of the dust in this image. Didn’t want to erase Hale Bopp again.

 

[A special note about “The Golden Age of Farming.” This is not a reference to efficiencies, or production, or in anyway diminishing those who are farming today, but to a period in American history when times were good on the farm and in the towns that supported the farms. This period is typically noted as happening in the 1910s, but the vision many people have in their minds of what rural America was stretches over the first part of the Twentieth Century.]

Under Pressure – The Personal Side of Lost Americana

My biggest fear is that everything I have done over the last 25 years will fall to the wayside like so many of the places I photograph. 

2019 Has To Be A Make It Year.

Back in 1998 I was about to graduate from college with my BA in photojournalism and a class project that I started two years previous had accumulated enough images and become known well enough amongst my classmates that most people, including a few of my professors, all suggested that it needed to be in a book. Being the type of person that sets up long and short term goals, I made a deal with myself that in 10 years, I’d have enough material and I’d be able to get that book together. That time obviously came and went.

What happened in between isn’t super important. I worked a few different 9-5 jobs, struggled like so many artists do starting off, but I still kept spending my vacation time driving across rural America, photographing Lost Americana as I saw it and eventually started to share my work on a new Internet platform called Facebook. After the birth of our first child I had a brief hiatus from 2009-2011, but starting in 2014, even with a second child who was only one, I knew I needed to seriously get back on that road to Lost Americana and complete the biggest promise I ever made to myself. That one day Lost Americana would be a book.

So, here I am promising myself and now the thousands of people who follow me across the world, that whether it’s 100 copies, or 100,000 copies there will be a Lost Americana book, packed with unseen photos, stories of rural America, and facts about what has happened as small farming towns have shrunk, in the works by the end of 2019.

The pressure is on. A deadline has been set.

Now my only request is can I put a little pressure on you? Will you spread the word, tell your friends? Because the more people who follow Lost Americana across social media, and subscribe to the email newsletter, that’s more people that potential publishers will see as an audience for this book and every 10, 100, or 1,000 more people will potentially help to get this book onto shelves across the country and who knows maybe across the world.

Thank you,

Vincent D. Johnson

The last (2008) Lost Americana trip I took before 2014. Notice, no kids.

Kids be damned! Despite have a 1-year old & a 5-year old, both that had never so much as camped out in the back yard, I took them both on a 12 day cross country trip to photograph Lost Americana. The first major trip since 2008.

Historical Markers Might Be The Nerdiest Thing Ever

I Pulled Over For This:

Historical Markers and the nerdyness it takes to pull over for one.

You have to be a special kind of person to pull over on the side of a road to read about some obscure factoid that’s relevant to the exact spot (possibly) where it was placed. Typically on a giant metal plate or stone monument, often with fading painted letters or a worn down surface. All while most likely traveling to get to a vacation destination, which is probably not close to the spot you just pulled over at.

If that paragraph describes you, or maybe how your father took road trips across America, then welcome to the club. Unless I’m pressed to make it somewhere for a hotel reservation, or we need to eat, if I haven’t pulled over in the last hour and see that wonderful brown sign “Historical Marker 1 Mile”, we’re about ready to pull onto the shoulder of the road and read about some folks history forgot!

This historical marker could probably have just been put on the side of the US Route 377, but the State of Texas put it on the actual site of the event. Which was great for me because it helped me find a couple of interesting places to photograph.

Thanks to the placement of the San Saba historical marker, I came across this long abandoned school.

While I make jokes about the seemingly randomness and sometimes vanity historical markers towns get erected; when the town is basically the surname of the founder followed by the word “burg” or “ville” and every car dealership, drugstore, and law office in town still have that surname. Well it’s not hard to figure out the descendants of John Weasel, probably helped get a historical marker from the state telling people who founded the town and how it got the name Weaselburg. As if no one could have figured that out. However, occasionally I’m truly surprised and you do learn about the history of the country.

In Missouri, not far from the confluence of the Mississippi & Ohio Rivers is a spot marking the site of the Sharecroppers Strike of 1939. There is a plaque and monument which tell briefly of what happened, but thanks to mobile phones and the internet I was able to pull up a wonderful retelling of the story along with images from The Library of Congress right on the spot along U.S. Route 62 where it happened.

Even foreign visitors love a good historical marker. This woman from New Zealand pulled over on part of her American road trip to read about the strike.

The Sharecroppers Strike of 1939 is well worth the read and look from this story via Mashable. Photo from The Library of Congress.  https://mashable.com/2017/03/25/the-people-out-on-the-road/

While in Texas last month I pulled over for one of what I’m sure are several markers along the Western Trail. One of the last old time cattle trails that started in Texas and went as far north & west as Montana. It too became a piece of Lost Americana as farmers fenced off their lands and the trail became interrupted. Sadly not only are the days of the cattle trail gone, but as you can see from the picture below, mother nature isn’t the only enemy to these markers have, vandals most likely at some point knocked this one over as it is broken and re-cemented at the base.

My oldest son taking a moment to stretch his legs read up on the Western Cattle Trail.

 

While I always suggest just finding historical markers along your next trip, you can always search out the more interesting ones, or even plan a trip around a point of history. Here are some websites to help you navigate historical markers.

by Vincent Johnson

Historical Marker websites

Waymarking

http://www.waymarking.com/

 

Historical Marker Project

https://www.historicalmarkerproject.com/

 

Read the Plaque

Beyond just historical markers, Read the Plaque looks at all kinds of monuments no matter how big or small through the world. Started by the people who do the 99% Invisible podcast, it is worth a look for an more artful & curated take on plaques of all kinds.

http://readtheplaque.com/

 

Wisconsin Historical Markers

Melinda Roberts, runs this website taking a look at the Badger State’s historical markers.

http://www.wisconsinhistoricalmarkers.com/p/home-page.html

 

Lost Americana – Historical Markers Flickr Album

Lost Americana Flickr album link

While not as extensive, this is maybe a little more curated, you can check out an album of historical markers on the Lost Americana Flickr page.

LostAmericana-0822

 

Big Country. Small World.

What happens when a photographer from a big city, travels to parts of the country where few people live and posts those photos to the internet?

Well of course it just happens to be the relatives of someone who follows him on social media.

I don’t like to toot my own horn, but as a photographer, I knew the minute I drove up on this photo, it had classic Americana written all over it. Part of the Lost Americana series. Find out more at www.LostAmericana.com
Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.

Over the weekend I went on what was supposed to be a four and a half day road trip, more on that later, and had spent the majority of the first day in my home state of Illinois in what was a very Illinois weather for the fall; rain, clouds, wind, and cold. Still I managed to get some interesting photos and played hop-scotch with the storms thanks to weather maps on my phone (oh how things have changed since I started doing this in 1996).

The end of day 1 had me north of Springfield, Illinois and watching the clouds break apart, but of course as the sun started to go down. The sun and clouds were giving me some lovely colors and I was just looking for a subject to photograph when I saw the town of Cornland just ahead on Google Maps. I knew I needed to get a photo of the town sign and was just hoping that the good folks in Cornland took enough pride in that town to give me a nice sign. They did not disappoint. I was given a sign, bushes, a flag and pumpkin.

However, right before I got to town I noticed this little house over some train tracks and on a slight hill. The farm sat all alone outside of town looking like something out of a Normal Rockwell painting, just sitting there all pretty as the sun was fading. Before I could pull over a bank of trees blocked my view so I pulled a quick u-turn went back and made this photo above, along with several others.

The photo by itself was cool enough, but due to a my truck acting a little funny, I turned around and went home early the next day. Sad that I was missing out on 3 more days of travel and back at my home, I shared the photo on Instagram & Twitter. With in a few hours of posting I see this in my Twitter notifications. Seriously, what are the odds of this?

 

Turns out even in this big country it’s a small world. That tweet came from the wife of a guy who follows me on Twitter, after he found me via a farming podcast I was on with a guy in Oklahoma. Get’s even more surreal when a a fellow photographer in North Dakota who travels rural backroads mentions that he lived just down the road from Cornland for a couple of years.

 

Oh, and yeah. I got that town sign photo too. Thanks Cornland.

Part of the Lost Americana series. Find out more at www.LostAmericana.com
Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.

Interesting post script to this story. I had pretty much set my mind to it that I was going to drive out and see if I could get a mailing address of the mailbox of that house so I could send them a copy of the photo. With the sun going down and me scrambling to make photos with the light I forgot. All that was corrected when I got the address of from the niece of the couple who lives there.

 

Hey, I might shoot your relatives farm next. Don’t forget to follow me on all the social media channels.

Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Flickr | Tumblr

 

22 Years Ago These Photos Were On The Cutting Room Floor, Today I Think They’re Great

Why These Photos I Took in 1996 Look Better In 2018

It's amazing what time can do to ordinary photos

The old grain elevators in Union Grove, Illinois. With the sun coming from behind these elevators and the heat and humidity creating a very muggy hazy sky, this photo never even made a rough cut for my final project. Looking back on the set of images now I see a treasure trove of a place no longer standing and the two little boys who came over to see what I was doing. Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.

In June of 1996 I was between my sophomore & junior year taking a summer class in color photography at Columbia College in downtown Chicago and I was spending my free time working on my final project by driving all over the rural Midwest photographing mostly older farms & buildings. Considering everything you did then was on film and scanning to digital was rare, with images being judged on being perfect in color, subject matter, and composition I have very few of the over 100 rolls of 35mm film scanned in. So recently I’ve started going through those old rolls and scanning in basically every frame that was in focus and properly exposed, and what I’ve found has been nothing short of a treasure trove.

There’s a overpass above the train tracks that go through Union Grove, Illinois, without this view I might have missed this place. After taking these I turned around and went back to get some closer shots.
Union Grove, Illinois, from the overpass, circa June 1996.

The funny thing about taking photos is you never know when a photo’s subject matter will take on a whole knew meaning in the future. Going back to the 1990s I’m reminded of Dirck Halstead’s photo of Monica Lewinsky hugging then President Bill Clinton at a fundraiser. This photo basically hit the editing room floor as well till the story of their affair broke and every photojournalist started digging through their old negatives.  While these photos of Union Grove, Hinkley, and Morrison, Illinois aren’t going to be quite as historic, the fact that they captured people & places that have changed, or disappeared makes them much more interesting to look at despite the fact they were pretty plain photos when taken.

Two friends riding bikes in Union Grove, Illinois, June 1996.
A grain elevator in Union Grove, Illinois, June 1996. Satellite images show that show by 2005 this building was no longer standing.
In 22 years I rarely have photographed people, this curious boy & his friend in Union Grove are some of the few.

As a photographer I know that simple photos of a street, place, or people will eventually overtime become a more compelling image. The best part about taken these on film is you aren’t tempted to just delete them while they are new and something you can make again real easily. With digital photography I’ve found myself taking more photos like this knowing in 20 years their power will be more pronounced.

Traffic slows down on U.S. Route 30 as a farmer drives his tractor through Hinkley, Illinois, June 1996.
Cherry Street, Morrison, Illinois, June 1996.
Donna’s Corner Tap, Morrison, Illinois, June 1996.
A day or two before the photos above were taken I was 13 stories above the streets of downtown Chicago, the view from here has changed as well. Looking at the negative sheets “Lost Americana” wasn’t even a thought, I labeled all these photos as part of my “Farmland” series.  June 1996.

Send me on my way – Win a free signed photo

Lost Americana is going east this August – make a suggestion on where and win a free photographic print.

If you see a black Nissan XTerra with Illinois plate it could be the Lost Americana express rolling through the country side.

It has only been two years since I made a trip in New York state before driving down through Pennsylvania for a day and then back home to Illinois, sadly skipping over Ohio because of time restraints. And since most of the major road trips I’ve made have taken me west of the Land of Lincoln, I’m dedicating almost two weeks to the east.

Some of the time will be spent in Maine relaxing, but then moving roughly onto south central and western New York (sorry Vermont & New Hampshire just passing through), before going to Pennsylvania, West Virginia, southern Ohio and ending in Kentucky to see the solar eclipse on the 21st. If you have followed the Lost Americana project for awhile you may know there are two topics I like to focus on; First, the abandoning of rural farming towns and second, supporting independently owned local businesses while traveling.

How can you help?

With that being said look at the map below, if you know of a farming town, or county that’s hit hard times, especially those with a declining population, roughly in the areas around the blue line on the map, drop me a line through the connect page under “Get in touch” and make a suggestion for me to visit.

Also, if you know a great little restaurant, motel, roadside attraction, or experience unique to the areas I’m traveling, drop me a line. I’d love to find my next Chugwater Soda Fountain, or Manchester, Kansas. I’m for sure ready to send out one print for the best suggestion, but I’m open to more if I get a bunch of good stuff.

Don’t feel like doing email, drop us a message via Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook.

 

Manchester, Kansas – Some Places You Can Never Go Back To

Manchester, Kansas – The Pain Of Coming Home

While out driving the backroads of rural America, documenting Lost Americana, I come across places that really standout maybe about once a year, or so. Tin Cup & St. Elmo, Colorado; Buffalo Gap, South Dakota; Bradford, Pennsylvania; to name a few. And then there is Manchester, Kansas. No place has captured my imagination more than this little train stop north of Abilene, KS, and I think you’ll know why when you see these photos.

Main Street Manchester Sunset Main street between Robinson & Bonebrake, Manchester, Dickinson County, Kansas
This photo was taken on Main Street Manchester, Kansas, a few minutes after I first entered the town.
Manchester, Dickinson County, Kansas

In January of 2008 I made my first Lost Americana trip into Kansas. After spending the morning photographing in Missouri, I made my way West on Interstate 40 past Kansas City and into the more sparsely populated parts of the state West of Manhattan.

nostalgiaAs I have ever since I started driving across America photographing abandoned rural scenes, I would use an atlas with a page for each state and draw a line as I drove along. Marking down the roads I took along with a mark for where I started a new day. In years past, before Google streetview, or GPS tagged photos, it was all guessing. I looked for counties with nothing but small towns. The less roads in an area the better. I would follow rivers & train tracks which usually led towns that had been formed in the 1800s. How I ended up in Manchester is as much a mystery to me as it is to anyone. I had actually gotten off the highway an hour and a half earlier at exit 338 by Maple Hill, a place that fit perfectly into where I would normally explore. A pretty remote place in its own right, the only thing you could see from the exit was an abandoned gas station and plowed fields to the horizon.

However I got back on the highway and didn’t exit again till I got to Abilene. From there I went north headed towards the town of Industry, but for whatever reason took a left and headed west on a dirt road. I slowed as a grove of trees forced a slight curve in the road and as I past those trees there was a wooden sign shaped like an arrow and painted baby blue that said “Manchester.” I made a turn onto Robinson Street and headed into the center of this town of 98 residents, which felt more like 20, past trees damaged by a recent ice storm almost making the town look like it was the victim of a tornado. As I made my way to the intersection of Main Street, to this day I am still in awe of the view I saw.

dsc_0742
I always draw a line of where I travel on a paper map.

A funny story about that initial view of Main Street was that as I approached the stop sign at the intersection of Main & Robinson, I was so blown away by the view that I failed to fully apply my brakes. I only ended up stopping in the middle of the intersection because I was about to pass the buildings by. When I did finally stop and was able to pick my jaw up off the steering wheel, I promptly pulled over and took advantage of the fading sun light. The first photo of this post was the image I took before setting up my giant 4×5 camera.

lostamericana_s034
Scrambling to set up my large format camera before losing the light, I missed the lens vignetting on this shot.
lostamericana_r79f18
I did a better job the next morning at sunrise.

By far my favorite image from Manchester and one of my most popular photos overall, is this image below, which was made just before the sun came up the next morning with the 4×5 camera. (Don’t know what a 4×5 camera is read the “About the Camera” section on my website). Rarely on these trips do I stay in one location for multiple days, but I had to get more images from here before I continued on to Texas, which was my turn around destination. It’s also very rare for me to return to an area this far away from my home in Illinois, yet in 2014 I found myself taking a 200 mile detour to see Manchester once again.

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I’ve come to call this photo “Main Street, USA” because I think it describes a place that could be anywhere in the country. This image was made using my 4×5 film camera. Scanned in at full size this image is over 3 gigabytes large and has incredible detail zoomed in.

The second time I visited was in August of 2014, with my two sons. I wanted to get a few more photos of this town and get a posed shot of me and the boys together in front of it, so some day they could say they were there. The buildings were definitely in worse shape than they were just 6 years prior. The general store and the building next to it now had the words “KEEP OUT” spray painted on the front of them and windows were boarded up. A peek inside revealed that the roof and north facing wall on the Kansas fencepost limestone building had started to collapse in. I could see large beams from the second floor had fallen and could clearly look out the rear-upper part of the building. I imagined it could still be saved, but in its current state wouldn’t last more than a few years at best. If only the owner would be willing to sell them for real cheap, maybe some preservation work could be done?

Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson. http://www.VincentDavidJohnson.com
My sons were one of the only other people you could ask that knew where this photo was taken.

Over the years I have done a little research, talked with former locals, and bumped into a few residents on my return trip. It seems that Manchester, like many small towns did, had seen glory days in the past. The general store on Main Street alone would hint at that. While originally the town was called Keystone when it was plotted by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway in 1887, it was changed to Manchester in 1890. While it’s not clear if this was a nod to Manchester, England, it wouldn’t be a stretch as many British people settled in Kansas as a result of heavy recruitment of the British by the Kansas Pacific Railroad.

Beyond the general store of course was a depot for the A.T.&S.F. R.R., which was part of a junction, with one track going west and the other going north. Local lore has it that the town would have grown as big, or out paced nearby Abilene had the primary depot stop stayed at Manchester and not been switched to Abilene, a point maybe not well founded considering Abilene was already a town of 2,000 when Manchester was built, but none the less still mentioned some 100 years later. A photo of the original Manchester train depot can be seen here. A view of what appears to be a different, but not recently used train depot in Manchester can be seen in this video.

Manchester Kansas Main Street
Another building on Main Street, but those I talked to were unsure of its original use, or last use as a business.

Others have talked about an Opera house that had one time stood in the town, as well as the areas first Ford dealership. There was of course a school, bank, sheriff’s office and more that you would expect from a town of it’s size at the turn of the 20th century (Manchester had 250 residents by 1910).

Could this have been Manchester's Ford dealership? Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson. http://www.LostAmericana.com
Could this have been Manchester’s Ford dealership?

Just next to what was an electrical supplies company (and maybe Ford Dealership) sits a nondescript cement shed, which was pointed out to me that it was actually an old jail cell, which I’m assuming was only a part of a former wooden structure that was the sheriff’s office.

 

One room jail cell in Manchester Kansas
Look at the bars on this window and you should be abel to guess what this building was.
one room jail cell Manchester, Kansas.
Look at the ceiling and you can see where the jail bars use to be.

If I won the lottery

If you are like me, chances are when you travel the backroads and visit the small towns you’ve seen a place here, or there that gets you thinking “man if I won the lottery, I’d buy this place and fix it back up to it’s original form. I know this sounds far fetched, but a part of me had always wanted to buy those 4 buildings on Main Street. Secure them from further deterioration and possibly find a way to make this some kind of local, or roadside attraction. I didn’t think it would be that hard, considering their conditions and locations something like $10,000-$15,000 a property, maybe a little less for the smaller two. Add in the vacant land and I bet I could do it all for around $50,000. I thought Ghost Town billboards on the highway could bring in travelers. Wild West themed fairs in town. Heck, there’s the Abilene & Smoky Valley Railroad with it’s running steam locomotive just 15 miles away, we could absolutely get some type of excursion trip to this town. “If you build it, they will come.” I thought.

At one point I was even checking Zillow to see if they were for sale, or if they had a estimate on their value. So imagine how heart broken I was when a guy I met in town told me that each building sold for $800 at auction a few years ago to some guy from New Jersey. Essentially all of Main Street was bought for about two thousand dollars. I wanted to cry.

Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson. http://www.VincentDavidJohnson.com
One of the smaller buildings on Main Street. Nobody was sure just what this place once was.

Nostalgia

Nostalgia is derived from the ancient Greek words for “return home” & “pain/ache.” While it was first used to associate “home sickness” in soldiers, it now is more defined as  meaning a longing for, or remembering of a time that has past.  Generally happier times, but also sad. As a city boy myself, what I do has always been more of a “wonder” about what life was like then & there, than an actual longing for the days of old. I never lived in a town like this. I never lived on a farm. There was a sadness that it is disappearing, but never and ache, and of course not a feeling to return home.

So while I understood it, seeing things you once loved, having changed so drastically. Wishing that you would have taken more photos. Shot some video just driving around town. Keep that brick from the sidewalk on Main Street. I never really knew that pain of returning home… Until now.

Just this last week while talking about cool places to photograph with Kansas based Instagram photographer Francesca Catalini, she mentioned this cool old general store in Manchester she had been meaning to checkout, but when she got there it was nothing but a pile of Limestone with one column sticking out of the ground.

That was it. August of 2014 was the last time I would get to see Manchester as brilliant as I remembered it. And I can’t help, but stop and think what generations of others must have thought when they visited in the years following the town’s peak in the 1920’s. What was it like to visit parents who still lived in the town when it lost 40% of population from 1960 to 1970? The stores that must have closed, the homes that were just left empty.

Main Street Manchester Sunrise Main street between Robinson & Bonebrake, Manchester, Dickinson County, Kansas
Main Street Manchester Sunrise
Main street between Robinson & Bonebrake, Manchester, Dickinson County, Kansas

Some places you can never go back to, and I think Manchester is now one of those places for me. I did a quick Google Maps search of some other homesteads I photographed around Dickinson County back in 2008. It seems most of them are gone now as well. The news about Manchester has hit home for me and now more than ever I feel a need to go and photograph these places before they disappear. To interview the people who live here before they move away, or die.

And maybe someday I’ll win the lottery and save the next town I find like Manchester.

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Would you pay $800 for this property in rural Kansas? Some guy from New Jersey did and now it’s gone.
Main Street Manchester Sunrise Main street between Robinson & Bonebrake, Manchester, Dickinson County, Kansas
The door to the past is closed for good once you leave it, there is no going back.
Main Street Manchester Sunrise Main street between Robinson & Bonebrake, Manchester, Dickinson County, Kansas
The other store front on Main Street in Manchester,  Dickinson County, Kansas
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Roll 79, Frame 19 Manchester, Kansas
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Slate #40 | Jan. 26, 2008 | 211 Main Street, USA

A letter from the past

Letters from Leslie Perkins Snow, examiner for the U. S. bureau of pensions, to his wife Susan, about Manchester, KS (via the Kansas Historical Society).

April 15th, 1888 Junction City

My DEAR SUSIE:

I am as usual — well — and at J. C. There has been nothing particularly exciting during the past seven days — though variety is one of the ingredients of my present existence. The minister said today The experience of your life is constant activity. I don’t suppose he was alluding to me in particular but it hits — as perhaps many other expressions not quite as complimentary would.

Well at Tescott my host was a newly married man and what of pet names and other kind words were wanting were too few to be missed. That sentence is not a quotation if it does sound a little mythical. But I amused myself (when I wasn’t otherwise busy) watching the smiles and other outward expressions of the bliss and confidence which vibrated between the Snooks for that was the name.

I then handled the claim of Squire Apple. He was as well a square sort of a man. I delight to examine a real worthy claim. We had to drive quite a good deal through the country for witnesses and we stopped for dinner one day with one of the numerous Smith family. It was an ideal hour. Everything was neat and all were happy in a little house 15 feet square. You could almost see your face in the floor, it was scrubbed so clean — although in a land of mud. I came to Abilene Thursday and went to Manchester, the new town on the new R. R. — a junction of two branches of the Santa Fe. One year ago no houses were to be seen on the present site. There are one hundred now scattered over a territory sufficiently wide to accommodate a city of moderate size. The grass still grows in the streets and everything has a sort of new and fresh aspect. They are always glad to see a stranger for it adds for the time being another atom of activity. They always try to persuade him to buy a few town lots and never forget to tell what a smart town they have and what a city it’s going to make by and by.

I go to Salina next week.

Goodbye for the present

LESLIE

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Rural America and the Drug Epidemic

You Can’t Talk About Rural Population Decline Without Mentioning Drugs

What scares me the most in rural America is the drug epidemic. You never know when you’re going to walk into somebody’s meth lab.

You never know when you're going to walk into somebody's meth lab. Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson. http://www.LostAmericana.com
You never know when you’re going to walk into somebody’s meth lab.
Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson. http://www.LostAmericana.com

I’ve been fighting with the topic of the rural drug epidemic since I decided that I would be making a documentary film on top of the Lost Americana book. The topic was made all the more poignant when in a recent Instagram post I talked about the rural drug epidemic and this post probably got the highest amount of comments any photo I’ve posted has gotten.

The fact that so many people have been touched in someway by this is not lost on me and I struggle with just how to bring it up, as I know for a fact it could (and probably is) a documentary film all by itself.

Let me add, I do not know just how deeply this is effecting every community. I’ve heard some states have it worse than others. Personally I have yet to walk into a place that appears to have had anything illegal happen there beyond possibly teenagers drinking, but every time I step out of my truck towards an abandoned property, or drive down an access road into an area away from the main road, I know I could end up in danger.

Back in the early 1990s when I started driving all over the midwest as a wide-eyed want-to-be professional photographer my biggest concern was getting hit with some bird shot from an angry farmer for being on his land. I can gladly say that over the years I have only once been chased off by people. Oddly enough I was standing on the side of a state route. Most times when I encounter the land owners they’re usually pretty friendly and we end up talking for a good 15-20 minutes when I tell them what I’m doing.

Yet in the towns and small cities that dot the rural landscape I find myself paying extra attention late at night as I pull into rest areas, or gas stations. Like recently when I was in a little one stop light town 100 miles from the nearest major highway and a guy on a bike with no brakes was circling the gas pumps, continually checking his phone. Peddling away to some apartment buildings before coming back a few minutes later and riding up to a car window that had just pulled into the lot. Did I just see a deal go down, or was this just friends meeting up?

While the drug problem was never the cause of population decline, it is absolutely an effect of it. Sadly it’s not just the buildings that are falling into ruins. Sometimes it’s the people too.

Waiting for a friend, or waiting to make a deal? Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson. http://www.LostAmericana.com