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W.R. Gray photo collection, St. John, Stafford Co., KS

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W.R. Gray photo collection, St. John, Stafford Co., KS

Posted: 1332268673000
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The W.R. Gray glass negatives collection housed at the Stafford County Museum Library contains a wealth of genealogical information for those with Stafford County roots (and the surrounding area).

Here is the website where you can view some of the photos. About 4,500 have been uploaded to this website at Forsyth Library (Fort Hays State University):

For more information about the collection, including photos that are cataloged but not yet uploaded to the Internet, e-mail the Stafford Co. Historical & Genealogical Soc.:

Here is the story as it appears on the museum's websites:

Windows to the Past:
The Story of the W.R. Gray Studio Glass Plate Negatives

by Michael Hathaway
Curator & Project Director

WILLIAM ROSSETTER GRAY was born March 22, 1865 in Greentown, Howard Co., Indiana, the first of four sons of Luther and Rebecca (Oxley) Gray. In 1883, he moved to McPherson, Kansas. He was 22 years old and working for a farmer in 1887 when he asked for his wages a few days in advance to buy a 5x8 camera he’d seen advertised in a circular. In his first job, he operated out of an overland gallery (photo car) owned by a teacher named Van Duesen. Communities they served were Fall River, New Albany, Fredonia, Neosha and Lafountain. He eventually bought the photo car from Mr. Van Duesen and was successful.

Around 1898, he married Mary Tipton (born Dec. 12, 1876, McPherson County, Kansas and died Feb. 4, 1958, St. John, Kansas). In 1905, W.R. Gray moved his family from Fall River to St. John and bought the studio at 116 N. Main. At that time, there were three children: Royal L. (1899-1981), Ina Amelia and Jessie Ruth (1903-1993). Two more sons, Arzy Robert (1906-1978) and Cecil Tipton (1908-1980), were born after they moved to St. John. The family’s home was also in the building. It stands today at the corner of 2nd and Main.

Royal and Jessie, as well as two of Mr. Gray’s brothers became photographers. Royal opened a studio in Ulysses, Kansas in 1931 and served that community until his death in 1980. Dr. Arzy Gray worked as a chemist for Eastman Kodak.

Jessie attended the Southern Branch of University of California (now UCLA) from 1926-1929 and became her father’s business partner in 1940. After W.R. Gray died on Aug. 2, 1947, Jessie took over the studio. She specialized in the art of tinting and enjoyed working with landscapes. The desk she used in this work is on display at the Stafford County Museum as are several of Mr. Gray’s cameras and other tools of his trade.

Jessie went into full retirement in 1981 and donated the glass plate negatives to the Stafford County Museum in 1986.

We estimate there are about 29,000 negatives in the collection. We’ve been told that although there are larger glass negative collections in the country, ours is probably the largest collection specific to one geographic area.


A glass plate negative is a reversed photographic image transferred onto a piece of glass, which is then developed into a photographic print. This technology came in to use in the early 1850s.

The first types of glass negatives were known as “wet plate” negatives and were used until about 1880. A photographer would coat a piece of glass with a collodian emulsion and then expose it before it dried.

After 1880, “dry plate” negatives came in to use. That process used a silver gelatin emulsion that was applied by the manufacturer, not the photographer. The emulsion dried and then the pre-sensitized plates could be stored until the photographer needed it, making the process much more convenient. Mr. Gray only worked with dry-plate negatives.


We have received three Kansas Humanities Council grants, three local community grants and two private donations that have helped us process about one-third of the collection.

The conservation process involves brushing the emulsion side of the negative with an anti-static whisk brush and washing the shiny glass side with a cotton ball dipped in distilled water. After the negative dries, it is assigned a new catalog number and placed in an acid-free four-flap folder and placed in an acid-free box.

Since Mr. Gray numbered most of the negatives and recorded information about them in 11 ledgers, which we also have, volunteers are able to record information about each negative on a catalog sheet. Information is usually limited to the photo’s date and client’s name who originally ordered the photo, but that is usually enough to determine which family the photo belongs to or to conduct further research. The catalog sheet is then given to a typist who enters the data in our computer database.


Those who have worked with the negatives have come to understand that Mr. Gray was not only a photographer, but an accomplished and respected artist. He was an expert at composition and lighting and his photos are true works of art.

Images in the negatives reveal glimpses into what life was like in central Kansas in the early part of the 20th century. From these negatives, volunteers have learned about the lifestyles of St. John and area citizens. Revealed in the photos are clues about their cultural and leisure time activities as well as work, schools, churches, clothes, vehicles, homes, pets and farm animals.

Although a good number of the negatives depict formal studio shots, there are still many surprises. Volunteers cannot predict what they might see when they peer into these little windows to the past. Surprises have included photos of surgical scars, medical conditions, crime scenes, street scenes, festivals, parades, traveling entertainers and shows, local and visiting athletes, oversized produce (pumpkins, squash, etc.), long-defunct stores and other businesses, farmsteads and harvest crews.

W.R. Gray’s studio also served the community as an early day Kinkos, where clients ordered photos of older photographs for duplication purposes as well as legal and vital statistic documents, cancelled checks, local maps and military papers dating as far back as the Civil War.

By studying these photos one can find clues as to what was important to the people who lived here 100 years before us. We find that we are not so very different from the folks who lived here a century ago. What was important to the people back then is the same as what is important to us now. Styles, fads and technology may change in the blink of an eye, but basic human values and needs remain the same: love of beauty and truth – and what shines through most in these photos – the love and all-encompassing importance of family.

You may also view photos of Mr. Gray and the studio at the museum website:

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