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History mystery: Luzerne County old photos capture online buzz

A screenshot from a cell phone shows a digitized glass negative taken of a home in Plymouth in the early 1900s. In the background, the house still stands today.
Aimee Dilger
A screenshot from a cell phone shows a digitized glass negative taken of a home in Plymouth in the early 1900s. In the background, the house still stands today.

The modern-day story of Harry Nesbitt’s photography starts with an estate sale in Plymouth and ends with a woman in Lackawanna County.

In the middle are clues, Facebook sleuths, eBay and an Ohio man with a local connection.

"Little did he know the simple family that probably only had a small sphere of friends, that all of us thousands of people across the country are going ... over his photographs," said Julie Jeffery Manwarren. The Clarks Summit "history detective" is the lead investigator in this mystery.

At the beginning of the year, Paul Holbrook started posting positives of old photo negatives from Luzerne County on his Facebook page, Camera Americana. Folds in fabric, smile lines and the textures of the clothing are crisp. Some houses and landmarks are familiar, but styles are outdated. There are no cars. No modern technology. The county is dirt roads on a rural landscape.

Holbrook uses modern technology, like scanners and Photoshop, to preserve and enhance old photographs before posting them on his Facebook page.

He purchased 150 glass-plate negatives from a local eBay seller from Duryea. The plates were used from 1850s through the 1920s in early photography. They came in small boxes with a Wilkes-Barre address.

"There's a rubber stamp on the back of a seller named Robert Johnston," he said.

He called the collection the "Wilkes-Barre Glass Negatives." Holbrook posted the photos in area community and historical Facebook pages. They caught the eye of locals, who made a distinction. Most of the photos were taken outside of the city and in Plymouth.

Holbrook had a connection to Northeastern Pennsylvania. He and Manwarren published a book together. It’s based on a collection of glass-plate negatives taken by photographer Floyd Ingram in Springwater, a hamlet in the Finger Lakes in New York.

"I was able to solve over 200 of those images," said Manwarren.

This time around, she was busy. Manwarren researches the past for people in the present.

"We're messaging on Facebook, back and forth, and he says 'but they're from Wilkes-Barre' and I was like 'are you kidding me? That's my backyard',” Manwarren said.

She looks for clues in the photographs, including shorter hemlines, which usually mean the photos were taken after 1918. What landmarks still exist today, and are the same people popping up in multiple photos? Even the type of photography or the way the pictures were developed or mounted give clues.

“I kept finding thing upon thing upon thing in Plymouth, Pennsylvania," she said.

Then, William Lewis posted a comment about a restored photo of a Victorian-style home with a turret.

“The two homes in this photograph are Number 28 & 34 Center Ave, Plymouth PA," the comment said.

The home and many of the surrounding houses are still there.

"This house looks exactly the same," he said while standing on Center Avenue. "I would even go on to say that railing is exactly the same. Everything is."

Lewis owns WV Estates Estate Sales. He sold the boxes of the glass negatives during an estate sale at the Nesbitt family's multigenerational home on Academy Street in the borough. The family moved there around the beginning of the 20th century.

There were around 13,000. Lewis kept some.

The last owner, Margaret Nesbitt, died in 2021 at 102 years old. Her husband Charles B. Nesbitt was born in 1900. He died in 1984. His parents were Harry W. and Mary Nesbitt. He also had a sister, Margaret.

During her research, Manwarren realized she was looking for a married couple from around the early 1900s with two children — a son and a daughter.

"It makes so much sense that Harry was the photographer, it fits the time period fits the clothing fits everything that's there," she said.

Some of the photos are posed portraits, and there’s a group of young children sitting on peach baskets. Most of them are of everyday life, including a coal miner, a cemetery, streetscapes and a group of kids on a sleigh pulled by a horse near a lake.

Manwarren, who posts her research on her blog, compared modern-day landscapes to those in the photos. Some of them were taken at Lake Carey.

"But I still couldn't place the Nesbitts there, even though the little boys seem to match," she said.

There’s a picture of a baby standing on a lawn. Behind the child, a sign hangs off the porch roof that says “idle hours.”

The house still stands, and so does the sign. Manwarren looked through the home’s property records. She found the original owners lived in Wilkes-Barre on the same street as the Nesbitts’ first home before they moved to Plymouth.

“They were within one to two blocks of each other, and so they knew them," she said.

From what Manwarren can tell, the family wasn’t wealthy.

"They're simple, every-day hardworking Americans in the early 1900s. That's it," she said.

Manwarren said Harry mostly photographed his friends and family and things that interested him.

"It was probably simple reasons why he took it when he did and the time period," she said. "It tells me it was a good time for Luzerne County. It tells me that the people there had pride in what they did."

Case closed.

Kat Bolus is the community reporter for the newly-formed WVIA News Team. She is a former reporter and columnist at The Times-Tribune, a Scrantonian and cat mom.

You can email Kat at katbolus@wvia.org