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5000 Photos…and Counting

The Laker - July 26, 2017

By Kathi Caldwell-Hopper

Photo courtesy Joan Cook

Joan Cook is on a mission. She has been focused on that mission for six-plus years and she sees no end in sight, nor does she really want her mission to end.

Perhaps “mission” is not the right word to describe the process that led to Joan collecting an amazing 5,000 photos of Sandwich, NH. What started as part of a book Joan was writing about one-room schoolhouses of Sandwich took on a life of its own after the book was published. (The book is titled “Exposed, Unbanked, Weatherbeaten Knowledge Box: The Schools of Sandwich, New Hampshire, 1802-1950”; Joan also has written a book on the town’s big autumn event: “Sandwich Fair Through the Years 1886-2010”.)

Recalling how she began collecting photographs of Sandwich, Joan says from her home in the Center Sandwich area, “There was an elderly lady in town – she was over 100 years old – who I visited with. She would reminisce and she had a lot of old family photos and pictures of the town. I decided to ask her if I could make copies of the photos. She said yes and that is how it began.”

Soon, other townspeople in Sandwich were calling Joan, having heard that she was collecting old photos of the area and its people. It turns out people were eager to share their family photos and in some cases, if Joan knew of a family that might have interesting family and other photos, she simply knocked on doors or called and explained what she was doing.

Because Joan and her husband, Wilbur, are both natives of the Sandwich, area, they know many people, so door knocking and cold calls to ask about borrowing photos wasn’t as intimidating as it might sound.

One thing certainly led to another, and before she knew it, Joan had a very large collection of photos – some in black-and-white and some in color. Someone suggested she should have an exhibit of the photos and she agreed. “This is my fourth exhibit so far, and this exhibit will be at the craft building on the Sandwich Fairgrounds,” she says.

This summer, the Sandwich Historical Society is celebrating its 100th birthday and it seems only fitting that Joan present a new exhibit of the photos, numbering a staggering 5,000 at this point. Joan is more than willing to talk about her project and the wonderful and varied photographs she has collected.

“This year’s exhibit will take place at the Sandwich Fairgrounds craft building from July 28 to July 30. We are having an opening reception on July 28 from 4 to 8 pm with cookies and punch. On July 29, the hours are 10 am to 4 pm and on July 30 the exhibit runs from 11 am to 4 pm,” Joan says. One can hear the excitement in her voice and if anyone has a right to be proud and excited, it is the hardworking Joan – once she decides to do something, gives it her all. Clearly this is a project she has been planning and a rare opportunity for the public to see wonderful photos from over the years that they might not otherwise get to view. The exhibit is free and all are welcome, whether a Sandwich area resident, a summer visitor, vacationer or anyone from around the state.

And indeed, where else can you get a glimpse of the personal photographs from typical New England families? Most of us do not share our family photo albums with others simply because we doubt if anyone except relatives would be interested. But it is from these photos that we can learn a great deal – old family names, old houses, how architecture has changed over time, ways of dressing, transportation and much more.

Lest one imagine Joan frames and hangs 5,000 photos for the exhibit, think again! She laughs and says, “That would be a really time-consuming process and I can’t imagine hanging that many photos! Most of the photos are in sleeves in photo albums and I try to copy the photos to 8 ½ by 11-inches or at least 5 by 7-inch size. The photos albums – about 30 of them – are organized by category. We have the albums on tables with chairs at the tables so visitors can sit and take their time browsing through the pictures. You could really spend an entire day going through the photos!”

No one will be unsure of what scenes they are looking at in the albums because Joan has each photo captioned with pertinent information: the year the photo was taken and the names of people and locations in the photos.

Still, it is a mammoth task and Joan says she has some “strong men” lined up to help her transport and set everything up and some good volunteers to help during the exhibition.

“I have come up with categories to keep the photos organized, and those categories are: Sandwich Fair Posters; Weddings; The Wild Side of Sandwich (wildlife photos); Centennials; Sandwich sites (houses, businesses, etc.); Veterans; One-Room Schoolhouses; Pow Wow; Sandwich Notch; Barn – Quimby Transportation Museum and other barns; postcards of Sandwich; Happenings in Sandwich; Ski Area in Sandwich; Skating; Four Seasons of Sandwich; Quimby School; Sandwich Fair; Old Barns; Then and Now, and Sports and Clubs.

“I would say that two-thirds of the photographs are in black-and-white and the other third are in color,” Joan explains. This is because in days of old, color was not available. “Some of the photos are from the 1800s and into the early 1900s.”

For those who like stories of vanishing towns and may have read “The Road Through Sandwich Notch,” the category on the Notch will provide fascination. (Just ask Joan about the history of the Notch and she can relate a lot of information sure to conjure up images of farming in the rocky area until the Civil War snatched husbands and sons up. The women were left to get on as best they could and many had to leave to join relatives elsewhere, unable to farm the rocky land alone.)

Joan speaks of the railroad that into Notch for logging at one time. It ran from Beebe River in Campton to the back of Whiteface Mountain for several years.

The old photos and Joan’s historical information truly add to the uniqueness of the exhibit.

Spending her entire life in the Sandwich area and working a farm alongside her husband, Joan can well relate to the struggles and isolation…and the beauty and specialness of the lives of fellow country farmers.

Joan attended the Quimby School (later used as Ayotte’s Designery) in Sandwich; at the time it was the local high school with a definite agricultural focus. Along with academics, students learned farming, canning, sewing, woodworking and other skills for living in the country and being quite self -sufficient. Joan says the school was small, since the population of Sandwich was not big in the 1940s and 1950s. (The school eventually closed and students were bused to a larger area school.)

When asked what her original goal for collecting all the photographs was, Joan says after reflection, “I don’t think I really had a goal! But having the exhibit is certainly exciting.” The Sandwich Historical Society will someday be the fortunate recipient of all the photos and the written information Joan has carefully collected and it is indeed any historian’s dream come true.

That sort of gratitude and the ability to leave such a legacy makes all the door knocking and calls and sitting and recording names and information for photo captions all worthwhile.

Joan is now on a mission to gather as many photos with information on young men and women from the area who are serving or have recently served in the military. This information will prove valuable in the future, it can be sure.

What started as a desire to collect one-room schoolhouse memorabilia and old photos has grown by leaps and bounds – and given the town of Sandwich a wonderful gift in the upcoming exhibit.

Although Joan and Wilbur have traveled extensively, they have no plans to retire elsewhere. The family farm is home and projects like the collection of all the photos, which continues into the future, keeps Joan active.

She says with a lilt in her voice, “I do like to keep busy!”

With 5,000 photos collected and counting, busy is something Joan Cook will surely be for years to come.

Anyone with an interest in Sandwich history, families or any lover of old photographs should plan to attend the exhibit at the craft building from July 28 to 30. Joan will look forward to seeing everyone! 

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