View of the Dragonfly Gallery collection of glass plate negatives and prints, in the container they arrived in. [Shannon Bettles photograph]
Sometime in 2015 Alain Nowak of Ladner answered a Craigslist advertisement about a stuffed alligator, as antique dealers do.
Nowak’s Dragonfly Gallery is a local fixture on Ladner’s historic waterfront. Stuffed alligators are at home amongst church pews, commercial shoe stretchers, vintage tailgates, tin signs and tricycles. As it turns out, the reptilian carcass was being flogged at too high a price for Nowak. Determined not to leave empty-handed, he purchased a box filled with unbroken 5” x 7” glass plate negatives and hundreds of photographic prints from the seller who reportedly discovered them in a Coquitlam dumpster some 30 years.
Last October I received a phone call from the Matsqui-Abbotsford-Sumas (MSA) Museum, when one of their Trustees stumbled across the collection at Dragonfly Gallery. After identifying the collection’s content as Chilliwack-centric, I received the 108 glass plates and prints for the Chilliwack Museum and Archives.
At the Chilliwack Archives, I examined the glass plates and photographic prints more closely. I recognized many of the image because the Archives has copies in the form of postcards in our collection already. In fact, the postcards in our collection were clearly derived from the glass plates.
“The Key” – Frederick Leary stands outside his confectionary shop “The Palms” located on Wellington Ave., 1914. [2015.063.005]
Though we were able to identify most of the locations pictured, questions remained. For instance: Who took these photographs? When where they taken?
Working with and researching archival collections can be compared to a detective examining pieces of evidence as a way to discover clues to solve mysteries. With the Dragonfly collection, one of the photographs held what I like to call, the “key” – it is full of clues which unlocks the mystery. Let’s take a look:
The photograph shows a man standing in the doorway of a store called: The Palm’s Fruit and Confectionary. The Chilliwack Museum and Archives had already undertaken previous research on this business, having artifacts including a menu, in the artifact collection.
Detail from [2015.063.005] of the Saturday Evening Post magazine in the Palm’s window. Zooming in, we see the magazine is dated November, 1914.
As well, a quick keyword search of the Chilliwack Progress newspaper, provided more information, such as the opening date of the business in 1914
Knowing that Mr. Fred G. Leary was the owner of the business opened up more avenues of research. A search of the Archives’ catalogue reveals that we have some photographs of Fred Leary. Could the man in the Dragonfly photograph be the proprietor of the business Mr. Leary?
We believe this is the case. Therefore, the photograph can be dated to as early as 1914, when F. G. Leary opened his business. But it’s not the identification of Mr. Leary that is the clue unlocking the mystery of the entire collection – it is the postcards and magazines visible in the store window!
Dating the Photograph
If you look closely in the shop window, you will see a number of magazines. By scanning the glass plate, we were able to zoom in close enough to read the date printed on the magazine – November, 1914! This dates the photograph more precisely.
Solving the Mystery
Detail of the “Palm’s” store window showing postcards on display. [2015.063.005]
Remember those postcards in the shop window? Look familiar? These postcards contain images of buildings around Chilliwack. In fact, these images are exactly the same images as the glass plate negatives in the Dragonfly Gallery collection, which are now sitting on my desk. It turns out that F.G. Leary developed photographs at the Palm’s, and it’s very likely that he, himself, is the photographer behind the photographs in question and producer of the glass plate negatives. This revelation suggests that the entire collection of glass plate negatives can also be dated to 1914 and can be attributed to Leary as photographer. Further, this means that similar postcards in our collection were likely purchased originally from The Palm’s confectionary.
Frederick Gordon Leary, 1889-1985
Frederick Gordon Leary was born September 29, 1889 at St. John, New Brunswick. He came to
One of the prints from Leary’s glass plate negatives showing the BC Electric Railway substation, ca.1914. [2015.063.019]
Chilliwack in 1914 at the age of 25 years and opened an ice cream parlor: Palm’s Confectionary. In 1926 Fred Leary was elected as a trustee of the local school board. He
served in this capacity for 49 years, retiring as the longest serving elected official in 1975.
In 1939 he became an accountant. Over the course of his long tenure in Chilliwack Fred Leary was a founding member of the Union Board of Health (serving as Chairman for five years); was a member of the Chilliwack Volunteer Fire Department, serving for 41 years and retiring in 1956; was secretary of the first Agricultural Hall Society, and member of the Chilliwack and District Agricultural Society; was Chilliwack’s Citizen to be recognized in 1956; was an active member of Chilliwack United Church and appointed as a Serving Brother of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, 1956, by the governor-general in Ottawa.
On June 29, 1920 Frederick Gordon Leary (31) married Elizabeth Hilda Blanche (Hilda) Manuel (23) at the Chilliwack Methodist Church. The couple had three daughters: Emily (married Lloyd Griffin), Fort
Fred Leary at his confectionary counter at “The Palm’s”, 1914. [2015.063.017]
Langley, Dorothy (married William W. Reid), Terrace, and Miriam (married Allan Ruttan), Prince George.
Frederick Gordon died in Chilliwack on October 6th, 1985 at the age of 96. He is buried at the Odd Fellow’s Cemetery, Little Mountain. A Chilliwack school, F.G. Leary Fine Arts School, is named in his honour.
While much of this mystery has been solved, there is still a pressing question: How did the glass plates end up in a dumpster? To this we have no answer. At the Chilliwack Archives we do our best to answer questions and gather information about our collections. However, we rely on you – the community – to fill in the gaps with this and the many other collections we preserve.
Formal studio portrait of Frederick Gordon Leary, Chilliwack Board of Trade Citizen to be recognized for 1956. Norman Williams portrait. [P5365]
I encourage and welcome you to come into the Archives to view the Dragonfly Gallery collection highlighted in this blog. We will soon be adding these images to our online catalogue for easier access once they are digitized and prepared for long-term preservation.