What: Book signing for “Looking Back: A Visual History of Early Plain,” by Byron Newell
Where: A Book for All Seasons, 703 Highway 2, Leavenworth
When: 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday
Cost: Free admission, copies of book $25
Where: Plain Hardware, 18636 Beaver Valley Road, Plain
When: 1 to 3 p.m. Dec. 27
Cost: Free admission, copies of book $25
PLAIN — Behind a century of change in this mountain community is the story of hardworking people whose lives and livings have been preserved, remarkably, in a revealing new collection of vintage photographs.
“It’s all about story,” says Byron Newell, a fourth-generation Plain native, career logger, amateur historian and now photo-book publisher. “The story of early Native Americans, the story of my family, the story of the community’s settlers and their industries — it adds up to a tale that’s definitely worth telling.”
Newell, 59, tells that tale in “Looking Back: A Visual History of Early Plain,” a 100-page collection of nearly 120 vintage photos that cover the community’s history from the original Wenatchee Indians to grizzled trappers to Chinese miners to burly loggers.
The author will present and sign his book at 1 p.m. Saturday at A Book for All Seasons in Leavenworth. A second signing event will take place Dec. 28 at Plain Hardware, the multi-purpose store at the community’s center.
Ranging from the 1890s to the 1950s, the photos capture activities of daily life — gardening, family dinners, barn-raisings, fairs and rodeos — and a wide array of business and industry, including logging, milling, farming, hunting and commercial baking. And it does it with brevity and wit.
“I tried to make the text short and interesting,” said Newell, “so that the pictures could do most of the talking. I allowed a few flourishes in the writing, but for the most part it runs straight and true.”
For instance, one photo shows a Plain resident holding a live fox in his arms, cuddling it like a house cat. The caption reads: “W.O. Burgess caught this fox on one of his trap lines. They got along fine until the price of fur went up.”
For Newell, collecting the book’s images began years ago with the gathering of family photographs. Newell’s mother is a Burgess — a direct descendant of W.W. Burgess, who bought a cabin in Plain in 1892 — so the family had a cache of photos dating back to the late 1800s and early 20th century.
Fascinated by history since he was a kid, Newell soon expanded his photo search to uncles and aunts, then distant family friends. Pretty soon, people were putting him on the trail of photographs that had been stored for decades in attics and basements across the country.
He whittled his collection down to about 250 prime photos. He then had the difficult task of assembling just the right images to tell Plain’s story in the best way possible. “I tried to establish a balance,” he said, “between photos of work and play, of early life (1890s) and the 1950s, of my family and the community at large. After all, we couldn’t have a book of just family pictures — that wouldn’t tell the full story.”
Newell said his fascination with local history evolved slowly over the decades. “No eye-opening epiphany,” he said. “I just started looking into subjects that interested me. Like the local Indians. I see the same mountains and river they did thousands of years before. But I didn’t know anything about them, really. What were their lives really like?”
That curiosity led Newell to delve into how Plain folks lived their daily lives, how they earned a living, how they ate, how they played, who they married, where they went to church. He studied geology, too, to get a feel for the land these people lived on.
Newell said he resisted gathering photos after the 1950s because life in Plain started to become modern and complicated. “The place was getting discovered,” he said, “and housing developments were being planned. I just felt I couldn’t do justice to the people and their story as things — layer after layer of new activities and history — got thicker and thicker.”
In the end, Newell said he chose photos for their story-telling value and artistic merit. “I don’t know if I have the photographic eye to take great pictures,” he said, “but I do have the ability to appreciate good photos, to see the power that a good photograph can carry.”
He pointed to what might be his favorite photo in the book. Two relatives — Jack and Bill Burgess — peek from behind living-room chairs to watch a person (out of frame) feed a piglet with a baby bottle. It’s the perfect, classic photographic three-subject composition, noted Newell.
“Now there’s a photo that says something,” he said. “I’m not quite sure what that is — there’s a little bit of humor, a little bit of mystery — but there’s definitely a story in there ready to be told.”
Mike Irwin: 665-1179