Newspaper publisher Aurelius O. Carpenter began photographing the Mendocino frontier in the 1860s, documenting the lives of Pomo Indians and early white settlers and the transformation of a vast and rugged logging region with the arrival of the railroad.
It wasn't until recently, however, that the richness of Carpenter's tapestry was revealed, the product of 30 summers of lugging his bulky camera and equipment around the county in a horse-drawn wagon.
The first exhibit ever mounted of Carpenter's voluminous work will open Saturday at an acclaimed Ukiah museum dedicated to preserving the Indian paintings of his daughter, western artist Grace Carpenter Hudson.
The comprehensive exhibition of Carpenter's work will run through Jan. 21. It's being staged in honor of the Hudson Museum's 20th anniversary.
"We thought it would be a fitting tribute to an exceptional family, and its legacy," said Sherrie Smith-Ferri, Hudson Museum director.
Never-before-displayed photographic prints include early scenes of Indian rancherias, a developing Ukiah, the rugged beauty of the Mendocino Coast, and portraits of a colorful cast of characters including Sonoma Valley's Charmian Kittredge before she married writer Jack London. Grace Hudson and Charmian London began a lifelong friendship as young adults.
Carpenter's collection had been hidden from view for decades. Smith-Ferri said if it hadn't been for a "heroic act of preservation" by Ukiah photographer Robert Lee, Carpenter's work might never have been seen.
In the early 1960s, with the permission of Grace Hudson's heirs, Lee rescued 700 historic glass plate negatives of Carpenter's photographs from the damp basement of Ukiah's Sun House, a handsome 1911 Craftsman home built by daughter Grace and her husband, Dr. John Hudson.
Over the next four decades Lee researched the negatives, developed contact prints, documented locales and subjects and placed them in historical context.
Smith-Ferri said Lee's work is a powerful demonstration of "what one person can do to preserve history."
Smith-Ferri, museum curator Marvin Schenk and Carpenter family historian Karen Holmes have detailed the scope of Carpenter's work in a 120-page catalog prepared for the exhibit.
They note that some Carpenter glass negatives are damaged: "Dark shapes of ruined photo emulsion creep along the edges."
And breaks, chips and cracks show how fragile old glass plate negatives actually are.
"However, these intrusions into the images actually add an element of atmospheric decay," the catalog states.
Carpenter was born in 1836 in Vermont, a descendant of Colonial-era families. His mother, Clarina Nichols, was a nationally known advocate of women's rights and the abolition of slavery. Her second husband was newspaper owner George Nichols. Carpenter at age 14 began an apprenticeship at his mother and stepfather's Windham County Democrat.
Attracted in 1854 by the anti-slavery cause in the Kansas Territory, Carpenter, a brother, Chapin, and mother Clarina headed west while other family members remained behind to sell their businesses and properties.
A.O. Carpenter quickly embraced the anti-slavery cause, and was at activist John Brown's side June 2, 1856, when he and a band of supporters engaged pro-slavery raiders from Missouri. Brown's forces won in what is now viewed as the first military engagement of a conflict that would become the Civil War.
Later that year, Carpenter married Helen McCowen and joined her family in a trek to California. In 1859, the Carpenters arrived in Mendocino County.