Now and Then: book captures how Menomonie has and hasn’t changed

Tom Giffey

HEY, THAT LOOKS FAMILIAR. David Tank’s new book, Postcards from the Past, features historic postcard photos of Menomonie – like the 1946 image above looking east from the intersection of Main and Fourth streets – juxtaposed with present-day pictures of the same scenes.
HEY, THAT LOOKS FAMILIAR. David Tank’s new book, Postcards from the Past, features historic postcard photos of Menomonie – like the 1946 image above looking east from the intersection of Main and Fourth streets – juxtaposed with present-day pictures of the same scenes (below).

Writer and photographer David Tank had long wondered about an often-reproduced photo of downtown Menomonie from the 1890s. The black-and-white image shows four serious-looking men – in suits and hats, no less – perched at various levels of a utility poll. Below them, horse-drawn carriages travel the unpaved street beneath wooden signs advertising coffee houses and furniture stores. It was a fascinating photo, he thought, but where exactly had it been taken?

A few years ago while strolling on Main Street, Tank got his answer. “All of a sudden, I looked up and said, ‘Oh, that’s where it is!’ ” he recalls. Such moments of recognition will undoubtedly be frequent among readers of Tank’s new book, Postcards from the Past: Then & Now Pictures of Menomonie, Wisconsin. Inspired by the men-on-the-poll photo (which, incidentally, was taken looking west on the 300 block of Main Street East), a few years ago Tank began buying vintage postcards and then capturing his own modern-day images of the same scenes. Postcards from the Past features 50 then-and-now juxtapositions as well as a map to guide readers to the exact locations in and around Menomonie.

An avid and exacting photographer, Tank would frequently return to a spot two or three times to ensure that he reproduced the original image as precisely as possible. In addition to location and angle, Tank tried to match the “feel” of the original photo through the presence (or absence) of people and vehicles. His chosen images range from late 19th-century street scenes to 1960s photos of the UW-Stout campus – all of which he mimicked meticulously. The result is something akin to time travel: The viewer’s eyes flutter between the old and new images, comparing the innumerable details that have been lost or preserved in the passage of 50, 75, or 100 years.

“It’s fun to find the things that still match – the one little thing that’s still there,” he says, comparing the experience to hunting for the stripe-shirted protagonist in the Where’s Waldo? children’s books.

In some cases, nearly every building shown in an original photo remains. In others, there are only a few crucial landmarks: the picturesque Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts, perhaps, or one of UW-Stout’s older buildings. And, at times, the march of time has obliterated nearly everything identifiable, which made reproducing some of images quite challenging. Consider the 1909 photo identified as Lambs Creek Falls, which shows a beautiful, cascading waterfall. Tank knew of no such site in Menomonie, and after some investigation discovered that the falls still exist – sort of: They’re now under 20 feet of water, courtesy of the hydroelectric dam that created Tainter Lake just north of town.

Tank, a senior lecturer in UW-Stout’s English and philosophy department, is the author of five other books, including several on 3D photography. His then-and-now photos originally began appearing in the Dunn County News several years ago before he realized he had gathered enough for a book.

David Tank
David Tank

Tank continues to accumulate historic postcards and says he’s well on his way to having enough images for a second volume. He’s enjoyed the photographic detective work, as well as the reminiscences his images have inspired among other Menomonie residents. “Everybody’s got a story to tell me: ‘I remember when this was there and that was there,’ ” he says.

Postcards from the Past by David Tank can be purchased in Menomonie at Bookends on Main, the Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts, and Rassbach Heritage Museum gift shop, and in Eau Claire at The Local Store, 205 N. Dewey St. You can also find it online atplanertcreekpress.com and amazon.com.

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