Main Street Kansas

Main Street Kansas: 'Community historian' preserves past of Stafford Co.

STAFFORD COUNTY, Kan. (KSNW) - One man's passion for photography is giving a Kansas community a look into its past. 

It's because of decades-old pictures, residents can share their town's story with generations to come. 

The flowers are blooming in the small town of Stafford. Near the only flashing stop light sits the museum, a place bringing the past into the present. 

"W.R. Gray was a photographer who was at St. John from 1905 until his death in 1947," said Michael Hathaway, Stafford County Historical Society.

W.R. Gray was a farmer turned photographer.

"He asked for his wages a day in advance so that he could buy a box camera and that was how his career started around 1886," said Hathaway.

A short time later, Gray opened his own business. Taking pictures of nearly anyone and everything he came across in Kansas. 

"Mr. Gray took pictures of events and buildings and went out to people's farms and took pictures of their farmsteads," said Hathaway. "People would bring in interesting things to the studio like oversized produce and things like that."

Gray even helped out the local authorities. 

"For the sheriff's department we found mug shots in his collection," added Hathaway.

His collection is grand. In 1986, Gray's daughter gifted the Stafford County Historical Society what's believed to be the largest collection of glass plate negatives of one geographic location by one photographer. 

"There are about 30,816," said Hathaway. 

Today, volunteers are still sifting through them.

"It was a little overwhelming and a little daunting," said Hathaway. "We just worked at it day by day, day after day."

All that work is paying off. Thanks to the museum and Gray, the townspeople are getting a high quality glimpse into the past. 

"I think he understood his roll as a community historian and I think he really loved St. John and Stafford County."

Volunteers are about halfway through cataloging the negatives. They've cleaned and stored the glass plates in envelopes so they will hopefully last for another century.

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