The Verne Morton Collection
Verne Morton against a grapevine, from his collection c 1903
Verne Morton of Groton (1868-1945) began his photographic career in 1896, and spent the next 49 years painstakingly capturing rural life in upstate New York in more than 12,000 remarkable photographs. Morton, the son of a farmer, was a dedicated schoolteacher with a keen love of the natural world, which is embodied in nearly half the photographs he took. He was an avid amateur naturalist, with an extensive library of field guides on flora and fauna, and he captured scenes in nature with great skill and artistry. Cornell naturalist Anna Botsford Comstock and horticulturist Liberty Hyde Bailey often used Morton’s photographs to illustrate their publications and bulletins put out by Cornell’s College of Agriculture.
Other Morton subjects include the people and the activities of the rural world in which he lived: farmers stacking hay; construction crews building roads with horse-drawn equipment; school children reading a lesson; lumbermen peeling bark from a log. It is interesting to see the dramatic technological and social changes that Morton’s images document as the 20th century progresses. Automobiles replace ox carts, tractors supplant horse- drawn plows. Telephone poles and wires appear in village street scenes, and a woman is pictured working in a Bell Telephone office in Groton. Morton’s photographs have been digitally reproduced, using Verne Morton’s own original glass plate negatives, by Ithaca photographer Harry Littell.
Morton homestead in Groton, summer 1901
The Verne Morton Photograph Collection at the History Center in Tompkins County consists of more than 5000 glass plate negatives, 5000 nitrate film negatives, and about 1000 35mm color transparencies. Morton’s meticulous attention to detail, so evident in his photographs, extended to his technical skill as well. His negatives are of exceptional quality, and each is numbered, with information on the subject and location of the images recorded in a series of notebooks. Morton’s extraordinary photographs may be seen in the book Images of Rural Life, and now in an extraordinary display at the offices of Dryden Mutual.