Plainfield — In the hall of the Plainfield Historical Society on Tuesday, a half-dozen volunteers crowded around a work table covered in computer cables, digital scanning equipment and palm-sized cardboard boxes.
Wearing blue plastic gloves, the volunteers thumbed through the boxes and some larger wooden cases, removing glass slides from paper envelopes and placing them, one by one, on one of the three scanners.
Within about a minute, a copy of the slide appeared on a computer screen before them: photographs of bison, birds, wolves, frogs and more — natural imagery captured or collected a century ago by famed conservationist, photographer, lecturer and Meriden resident Ernest Harold Baynes.
“Some of them haven’t been touched for 100 years, really,” Plainfield Historical Society Vice President Jane Stephenson said, shortly before helping volunteer Donna Beaupre to scan a slide labeled five baby skunks. “It’s a huge project.”
Led by a Michigan man who spent his formative years in Plainfield, the Historical Society is working to digitize the collection of thousands of glass photographic slides that Baynes displayed on cross-country lecturing tours in the early 20th century, when he brought images of wildlife to the masses in an era when such access was not readily available.
What remains today is a rigorous catalogue peering into the professional and personal life of Baynes, widely credited with helping to save the nearly extinct American bison and songbird.
But until the collection is digitized, it’s at risk of being lost, said Chris Wright, the Kalamazoo, Mich., resident who lived in Plainfield until he was 10.
“It was important, and I was able to do it,” said Wright, a Macintosh consultant who sits on his city’s preservation commission and who visits Plainfield once a year; his parents moved back to town in the early 2000s.
Stephenson said the slides were donated to the Historical Society more than a decade ago, when the descendants of Annie Duncan found them in the attic of her for-sale Meriden home.
When Wright offered to take the reins in a digitizing effort, they thought there might be 500 slides to scan — but soon realized there could be as many as 4,000.
By Tuesday afternoon, they had scanned about 890 slides, with plans to continue scanning into next week and an expectation of a second round to come during the summer.
“Of course it can be done better, but we don’t have $30,000 for an 80-megapixel camera,” Wright said on Tuesday, chuckling as he motioned to the hodgepodge of home scanners and personal laptops that were collected in the hall. “We’re doing the best we can with what we have and no money.”
How the digitized archive is used or presented remains to be seen, Stephenson said; the focus right now is finishing the process. Wright said the important part is to save irreplaceable work.
“My main thing doing this,” Wright said, “is (making sure) anything I was doing was not damaging the slides.”
No wonder: The sprawling collection was meticulously captured and catalogued by Baynes for decades until his death in 1925 in Meriden.
He was born in Calcutta, India, in 1868 and raised in Calcutta and Britain before emigrating to the country and meeting his wife, Louise, who continuously assisted in his conservation and documentation efforts.
They were drawn to Sullivan County around the turn of the century by the Blue Mountain Forest Association, according to Choice White Pines and Good Land, a book on Plainfield history by Philip Zea.
The area also is known as Corbin Park, a 19,000-acre preserve extending across Plainfield, Croydon, Cornish, Grantham and Newport.
Always interested in animals, Baynes had been writing articles about the natural world for magazines, and in Corbin Park, he found a reservation teeming with herds of deer, elk, wild boar, bison and “a large variety of birds,” according to Zea’s account.
Baynes’ efforts regarding the bison, including founding the American Bison Society and working to create refuges for herds — many of which originated in Corbin Park — paved the way for the animal to be named the country’s national mammal just last month.
Famous for riding a cart drawn by bison to the Meriden Country Store, Baynes called upon President Theodore Roosevelt for that animal’s conservation effort in 1902, and drew upon Woodrow Wilson the following decade in his campaign to save colorful songbirds from their common fate as frill on ladies’ hats, enlisting the president’s two daughters in a bird masque production about the creatures that was performed in Meriden.
Baynes was known, too, for domesticating a range of animals from a wolf named Polaris to a bear named Jimmy, and writing about his adventures with the animals in his syndicated articles and books.
It also was in Meriden that he founded the continent’s first birding club in 1910 — indeed, a member of the still-operational Meriden Birding Club was on hand to help in the digiziting efforts on Tuesday. Joe Bretton said he was trying to resist the temptation to examine the glass slides before scanning them.
“I try to work quickly,” Bretton said, “so I try to be surprised on the screen.”
Editor’s Note: Stephenson said anyone interested in helping can contact her at 603-298-8834.
Maggie Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3220.