A great portion of Cairo’s history was almost lost on a farm sale. It happened when one of the descendants of two of Cairo’s preeminent photographers had a farm sale. As chronicled by H. Jason Combs of the University of Nebraska and Ken Harders a local historian, the story goes like this.
Henry Balcom and his son-in-law Ray Green settled south of Cairo, Nebraska. They both farmed. Ray eventually also operated a general store. It is not know if they made their living with photography as well, but it appears that maybe they earned extra income with it. Henry and Ray’s photographs depict many Cairo’s homestead and families. Their pictures also feature postmortem photograph which became popular and stayed popular into the early twentieth century. Most of their postmortem photo are of young children so that loved ones would have a cherished memory. The photos also include family life, vacations, farm work and the evolution of a town.
Ray’s son, Albert Green, lived on the family farm until 1971. Green had a farm sale and at that point several boxes of glass plates were sold at auction. No one knows how many boxes were sold. Several of the negatives ended up in a thrift store in South Sioux City, Nebraska.
Enter Jay Breckenbach, a self-described “junkie,” purchased a crate containing the negatives in 1972 for $10 and later returned to purchase more of the glass negatives. In 1979 Breckenbach published an article in 1979 in American Preservation about the negatives.
Jo Reidy, a member of the Cairo Roots Society, received a tip from a Cairo-ite who now lived in Texas about the article. Breckenbach was contacted and invited back to a day named, “Jay Day,” to discuss and identify the photos.
As people get busy and life progresses the Cairo Roots Society lost contact with Brekenbach. the advent of the Internet allowed Reidy to eventually track down Brekenbach in 2000. In 2009 more than 1000 negatives were returned to Cairo.
Ken Harders’s enthusiasm for history compelled him to catalog and scan some 1200 images. The images can now be found in the Cairo Roots Museum located at 305 Said Street in Cairo, Nebraska.
For more information on the collection read the article, Pioneer Life on Glass: The Balcom-Green Collection by H.Jason Combs, University of Nebraska-Kearney and Kenneth Harders, Wood River, Nebraska.