WEST MIDDLETOWN – Historic West Middletown can appear very sleepy in the short amount of time it takes to drive through the little Washington County town.
It doesn’t take much imagination, though, to envision the borough in a bygone era when coal miners mingled and conducted business with farmers, industrialists and tradesman.
“It’s gorgeous,” said Bonnie Reese, curator at the nearby Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Museum, who has devoted much time to preserving local artifacts in what has long been considered one of the best-preserved rural communities in Western Pennsylvania.
While this borough has attracted the likes of Henry Ford, abolitionist John Brown and even Mark Twain’s ancestors, Reese enjoys the story about a quirky photographer who left behind an archive of photographs depicting average, mostly unknown people, some of whom posed for comical portraits.
“He did babies, children, buildings, industry,” Reese said, describing Frank France, who worked here as a photographer in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
“It’s a great documentation of local history,” added David Scofield, Meadowcroft’s director.
France was born in this town Nov. 30, 1877, about a century after it began to grow into an important stopping point for those doing trade between Washington and Wellsburg, W.Va., and beyond via the Ohio River to Pittsburgh and the Mississippi River.
West Middletown was a day’s travel by horse from Washington and Wellsburg, making it the perfect place to build inns and houses that doubled as businesses catering to travelers.
The horse-powered Ralston Thresher was invented nearby and manufactured here until 1859. Car-maker Henry Ford reportedly visited in 1932, not long after the town reached its peak, to acquire the last known such thresher, which was abandoned in a farm field, to place in his Dearborn, Mich., museum.
“It was a booming town,” said Ellen Armstrong, who serves on borough council and volunteers at the McKeever Study historical society.
The photographer was a son of John Davis and Clarrinda Wherry France, who operated a hotel along Route 844 in the heart of town. Frank France worked as a traveling photographer with his company, Last Chance Photography, through the early 1900s. He then went into the motion picture supply business under the name Feature Film & Light Co., doing business in Pittsburgh, Charleston, W.Va., and Cincinnati, Ohio, McKeever Study records show.
He married Belva Lockwood, a professional singer, in 1902. They had no children. He died in 1970.
Frank France is best known today for his 1913 photographs taken in Gettysburg for the 50th reunion of those who fought in the famous battle there. But it’s the nearly 500 photos from glass plate negatives taken in West Middletown that are most cherished by those interested in the borough’s history,
The look in the eyes of Belva France in some photos is testament to her love for her husband. He also posed portraits of returning World War I veterans, children, coal miners and baseball players.
“I think it’s a fantastic thing,” said Garry Armstrong, McKeever Study president.
“It preserves the history of the community in a different perspective.”
Meadowcroft has a framed collection of Frank France photographs on display in its museum, which reopens for the 2014 season in May.