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May 2024
1min read

When I worked, long years ago, for that relentlessly sociological magazine, Life , l could not have “covered” a family unless it was “typical” of something—a place, a class, an income level—a device that makes reading back issues less interesting than I once thought they would be. It is the nontypical, the unchanged, the truthful, the uncoached, indeed the eccentric, that makes a family, or anything, interesting, and these pictures dear to me. The one above, which looks like a costume call for the cast of an excessively gloomy production of Wuthering Heights , shows us the family of an angry, untypical old Virginia gentleman named John Minor Botts, taken on the steps of his mansion in Culpeper County by a wandering Brady operative in the latter stages of the Civil War. Botts had been a Unionist congressman, a bitter foe of secession. Venting his feelings on him, Jefferson Davis had him locked up in Richmond’s Negro jail, but cooled off and released him (on principle). Gen. J. E. B. Stuart took him prisoner again some time later; principle freed him again. After the war Botts headed the Virginia delegation to the Convention of Southern Loyalists in Philadelphia but lost his post when, like Horace Greeley, he signed the bail bond for the imprisoned Jefferson Davis, on principle. Look at those dour and cheerless faces; principle is a cold master.

Here, about twenty years later in the pretty upstate New York town of Cherry Valley, friends and relatives of the Olcott family are enjoying a sunny afternoon at the rather mild sports of the 188Os. What makes it extraordinary, in addition to the almost unbelievable sports clothes, is the enormous skill of the Olcotts’ grandson, Leonard Dakin, a true artist with his view camera. These are no “hold-still-look-atthe-camera” lineups. And Leonard, impatient to show action, rigged elastic bands to speed his shutter so it could record motion like these two groups jumping over a low net. In the 189Os Dakin laid away some two hundred of these negatives in the Olcott barn, hiding these charming people, not to mention a few incautiously revealed feminine ankles, for some seventy years. They reappeared in 1965 in a book called The Happy Valley by his daughter, Pauline Dakin Taft.

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