Book Review: Light on the Prairie, by Nancy Plain

Light on the Prairie: Solomon D. Butcher, Photographer of Nebraska’s Pioneer Days, by Nancy Plain, Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 2012, $16.95

Light on the Prairie earned author Nancy Plain her third Western Writers of America Spur Award for Western juvenile nonfiction. She won in 2008 for a profile of cowboy artist Charlie Russell and in 2010 for her story of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce. This time around she introduces young readers to Nebraska pioneer photographer Solomon Butcher, and it’s clear from the opening sentences why Plain deserves the recognition of her peers and acclaim of young readers: “In the springtime of 1880, two white-topped wagons traveled, creaking and swaying, across the Nebraska prairie. ‘Prairie schooners,’ the wagons were called. They were like boats on a rolling sea—a sea made of earth and waves of grass.”

Plain is as deft an artist with words as her subject was with his bulky wooden box camera and glass-plate negatives. Though few people recognize Solomon Butcher by name, most are familiar with his images. Hardy pioneers pose proudly before their “soddies” (sod houses) with a yard full of furniture and prized possessions. A white cow floats above a soddie roof. Draft horses flank a quartet of stalwart sisters. Schoolgirls in braids arrive at school atop the family mules.

Virginia-born Butcher (1856–1927) rose with the tide of homesteaders that poured into Nebraska in the 1880s, lured by the promise of free land and self-sufficiency for those willing to put their hands to the plow. Butcher wasn’t willing, but he made a go of Nebraska life anyway, tilling homestead country for subjects for his camera and plowing the profits into his “history scheme,” a photographic and written record of pioneer life in Custer County. He’d make a book of his images and interviews, selling subscriptions to the future tome to fund even more images.

Like any life story, there were hurdles along the way—drought, crop failures, economic near-ruin, a devastating house fire. But when all was said and done, Butcher had 3,000 images and the nugget for his book Pioneer History of Custer County and Short Sketches of Early Days in Nebraska. While the book was a success, Butcher was not. Compelled to sell his entire collection of glass-plate negatives to the Nebraska State Historical Society for $1,000, he retreated into real estate and land speculation before moving to Colorado, where he later died.

Butcher’s collection survives as a testament to life on the hardscrabble Nebraska frontier. Light on the Prairie in turn showcases several dozen of the photographer’s most striking images, illumined by Plain’s insightful prose.

Now, about that cow on the roof…

Dave Lauterborn

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