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Heritage: Local resident captures history in 13,000 photographs

Jessica Fuller • Jan 5, 2015 at 12:00 AM

A step into 86-year-old Elaine Cantrell’s house is a step back in history. The home itself is over 100 years old, and Cantrell fills it with history in the form of her photographs.

More than 13,000 photographs.

“I’ve always made lots of pictures,” she said. “I’ve got a little bit of everything.”

One day in 2000, Cantrell decided to feed her longtime passion for photography. Her sinus problems keep her from going outside much, so she had to decide how to proceed. Finally, she decided to take pictures of all the churches across the county.

“I could go around and stay in my car maybe and just get a shot of the church,” she said. “I made a few and I thought ‘Well, there’s so much in Washington County, why just make pictures of the churches?’ Then I started making pictures of everything.”

Twenty-four 10-pound binders later, Cantrell has what Jonesborough Genealogical Society president Chad Bailey calls a survey of Washington County, comprised entirely of photos. With the last survey being completed in the 1980s, Cantrell’s survey, although not official, provides a more recent look at the county.

“It was a lot of hard work,” Cantrell said as she pored over one of her hefty volumes packed with photos.

For almost three years beginning in 2000, Cantrell drove solo across the county taking her photographs. To be brief, her work includes all of the buildings in Jonesborough, railroads, rivers, roads, mountain views and all the historical markers on the national registry. Cantrell drove across the county to take her photos, wearing out her vehicle in the process.

“The door wouldn’t even work anymore because I got in and out (of the car) so much,” she said, chuckling.

Cantrell drove down each road so she could “build” them in photos, stopping to take pictures at certain points down the road. Buildings and roads are preserved in the packed pages of her binders.

“I made a picture of one building and it was torn down a few days later,” she said. “Now if somebody wants to know what used to be along a certain place, it may be there and it may not be.”

One of the things Cantrell said the project has shown her is how time changes everything. While buildings and land development are nothing new in Washington County, Cantrell says looking through her pictures shows just how much the county has changed over the last 15 years.

“The year 2000, everything was just sort of normal and then pretty well immediately after I made these pictures, you begin to see this building torn down, something else put there,” she said. “Johnson City has changed drastically since 2000.”

Each binder is labeled with its respected contents, and each picture has its own caption. For the railroad photos, each image is labeled with its specific location and the direction the shot is facing. What started as a big project turned into a massive one.

Cantrell said she would plan her outings for photos on Thursday and Sunday afternoons, getting her film developed in between. This is something she said she wanted to do for herself, while capturing history for the community at the same time.

Even though Cantrell’s survey isn’t official, that doesn’t mean it isn’t helpful. With the genealogical society’s new book, “Early Settlers of Washington County,” recently published, Cantrell’s photo albums have been off the shelves more recently as her photos are featured in the first volume.

“We use her work all the time,” Bailey said.

While Cantrell’s home houses 13,000 photos of the county downstairs, upstairs is a completely different adventure. There, she has collected more lengthy albums that are dedicated to family history. One album contains the obituaries of people she once knew.

Cantrell said she likes to have a project to keep herself occupied. When she and Bailey aren’t working to sell copies of “Early Settlers,” they are tackling a new project of Cantrell’s.

“Now I’m making pictures of all the lost graves across the county,” she said.

While she moves forward with her photography and interest in genealogy, Cantrell says that she is glad she took the opportunity 15 years ago to complete her survey. She added that the roads are much more choked with traffic now than they were then, and a job like this is difficult to do for one person, something she accomplished with “a lot of hard work.”

Looking back, Cantrell sees the project as her answer to a call.

“I think it was meant for me to do this,” she said.

Follow Jessica Fuller on Twitter @fullerjf91. Like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jfullerJCP.

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