History lives in a back room at The Southern’s office in north Carbondale.
A file cabinet of loosely-alphabetized manila envelopes contains black-and-white printed photographs, sporadically documenting life in Southern Illinois from the 1960s to the ‘90s, with a few turn-of-the-20th-century artist renderings of main streets thrown in. Several feet away, in a cage reminiscent of something you might find in the depths of a library or a museum, there are boxes and binders and file folders of film negatives — the more-valuable because harder-to-find outtakes that never graced front pages.
A few of us ended up back there one recent evening, digging through boxes and files and flipping through binders, searching for original negatives from news coverage of a fatal fire that happened in Carbondale 25 years ago this week. A quarter of a century after the fire, the result of arson (which remains unsolved), we thought our readers would appreciate a bit of context to the memorial service that was held Wednesday to honor the five students who died in the tragedy.
By the time we gave up the search — the December 1992 folder, frayed and curling at the edges, hadn’t yielded what we’d set out to find — my hands were blackened with dust, and my colleague’s throat was dry from inhaling the clouds of dust we had sent up as we shuffled boxes around that hadn’t been touched in years.
We also hadn’t obeyed the signs that some frustrated employee had tacked up years ago reading, “Your mother doesn’t live here. Please be considerate of your co-workers and put archived publications back where you found them.” The people who had entered the cage before us hadn’t done that, either: Nothing’s really in chronological order. Labels are scratched out and re-written in puzzling ways.
The many times I’ve searched for archival photos over the years, I’ve cursed previous Southern employees inwardly at the things that have been lost in the shuffle over the years. So I digitize what I can, and share the things I find that make me smile, or say, wow.
We didn’t find what we were looking for when we started digging that day, but our search wasn’t a total waste of time.
I left “the cage” with a three-inch-thick binder filled with negatives from the flood of 1993 — we’ll be marking its 25-year anniversary next year — photos of Marion Mayor Bob Butler that I was sure were lost forever after a futile search last week when he announced his retirement, and a file labeled “Big Muddy Monster,” which contains eye-witness sketches from the ‘80s.
I know from the data I peruse to see what people are into on our website each day that history is in. A look back at Charlie Birger’s Southern Illinois history continues to pique the curiosity of our readers almost 90 years after he was the last person publicly hanged in Illinois. Our galleries of historical photos are always fascinating — it’s fun to look back at the main streets we know so well when they were dirt, and watch their evolution to brick, then pavement.
When I was home over Thanksgiving, I opened a couple of weathered-looking photo albums sitting on top of the bookshelf in my mom’s dining room. They had belonged to her friend who died last year, and mostly documented her time working for the Special Service in Berlin after World War II. A documentarian had contacted my mom looking for a specific photo in that collection — one that was apparently the only surviving photograph of a building with the American flag hung outside of it. Vacation-type snapshots that a girl in her 20s had taken on a post-war adventure have become a hot commodity to historians almost a century later.
Mostly the photos were mounted precisely on each page, but some odds and ends — including what appeared to be a love letter from a long-lost friend, inviting her to meet up in the French Riviera — were stuck in the back haphazardly.
A photo of our friend raising a drink to her lips, surrounded by friends on a sofa in a fun and intimate moment, became my favorite in the collection. All these kids looked so happy, working and traveling after years of hardship and devastation.
Remarkable what you find when you dig a little.