Solomon D. Butcher arrived in Nebraska in 1880 to farm. Solomon, his father, his brother George, and brother-in-law J.R. Wabel took claims in Nebraska. They dug a hole and pulled their covered wagon over it to serve as temporary shelter. Such was the comfort of Butcher’s farm life. Butcher by his own admission wasn’t suited for the pioneering life. “I soon came to the conclusion,” he said, “that any man that would leave the luxuries of a boarding house, where they had hash every day, and a salary of $125 a month, to lay Nebraska sod for 75 cents a day, was a fool.”
Butcher lasted two-week.
Which lends to my theory that Nebraska is not for wimps.
In fact I’ve petitioned the governor to make that the state motto.
Nebraska-It’s Not for Wimps
Governor Heineman hasn’t gotten back to me yet.
Butcher turned his land back to the government and enrolled in medical school. He quit after a year. And thus began a five year strings of failures as his family grew. In 1886 he decided to become a photographer of pioneers. This picture of the cow on the roof (look close, it’s not REALLY on the roof) is particularly well known. And they’ve done painstaking computer studies and can see things inside the sod house through the open door. I’ve left these pictures large in an effort to not distort them by shrinking them and so you can see them better, they almost spill off the page.
His father loaned him a wagon and Butcher began his odyssey and would end up recording a legacy for the whole nation. Travel was hard. Roads barely existed. Farms were hours apart. Just study these photos for a while. The longer you look the more details you see. It’s really amazing.
This family was ashamed of their sod house, but proud of their pump organ. So they settled on this pose. Look how many cows they had. Rich people. Butcher accepted food, lodging and a stable for his horses in exchange for a picture. He supported himself with donations citizens made to the project, as well as by the sale of photographs.
It took him fifteen years to get his book published, including a fire in 1899 that burned all his pictures, but not the glass negatives.
I know how hard it is to get a book published and, as a writer, I’d just like to pause here for a moment and pity the poor man.
Okay, we’ll proceed with the story.
Look at this picture. The woman is fat. I’ll bet they were prosperous. Look at all those chickens. Dinner on the hoof, or claw…whatever. Butcher’s book, Pioneer History of Custer County and Short Sketches of Early Days in Nebraska was his single financial success until the day he sold his life’s work. In fact he was so poor he had to take his wife and child and stay at his father’s house every time it rained, because his house was so decrepit.
Along with his photographs he also collected pioneer stories that endure to this day. I love this one. Sisters who were alone in the west. They each filed a claim and ended up with their own farm. Can’t you just write that story right now? Butcher’s photographs can be found illustrating many history texts about the settlement period and are considered iconic.
After Custer County he expanded his photography to other counties but couldn’t raise the funds to publish his books. He continued to move his family and take photographs. The moves began to be massive undertakings because he had so many negatives to haul, each negative was a glass plate 6 ½ by 8 ½ inches.
In 1911 he decided to move to Texas and he couldn’t haul the plates along. He attempted to sell them to the Nebraska State Historical Society and after three years spent trying to raise the money, the Historical Society bought the entire collection for $1000 and they hired Butcher to archive the collection–I guess he’d given up on the whole Texas idea by then.
Solomon D. Butcher–shown here beside his own sod house–was a truly insightful photographer, but he died before the full impact of his photographs was realized.
Using computer technology, Butcher’s pictures have been restored and are considered among the best depictions of pioneer life in existance.
Still, I’m glad I wasn’t married to him.
Have you ever seen these pictures before? I recognized a few of them, especially the cow on the roof.