The Past in the Post
then-and-now photos reveal Dunn County history
If you are writer and photographer David Tank, it’s hard to pass up the opportunity to do a bit of time traveling.
That’s why an interview about his new book, Postcards from the Past – Dunn County, began with a brief stroll from the Volume One office to the nearby Dewey Street bridge, which crosses the Eau Claire River. Tank, who lives outside Menomonie, had recently acquired a postcard image, taken circa 1911, showing the view from the bridge looking east up the river, toward what is now Banbury Place.
“What I need to do now is find any of these landmarks that still show,” said Tank, who held up a printout of the postcard. A glance at the original picture reveals the passage of a century has brought dramatic changes to this corner of Eau Claire. Other than the “S”-shaped bridge a few hundred yards upstream, there are few recognizable landmarks. In 1911, a low dam crossed the river and a woolen mill stood on the south bank; today, the river flows around previously nonexistent islands, the mill is gone, and the looming shape of Banbury Place obstructs the view of Mount Tom in the distance.
Using the postcard as a guide, Tank methodically snapped digital photos of the scene, moving back and forth on the bridge and switching camera lenses in an attempt to replicate the original image as closely as possible. Once he finds just the right image, the contemporary photo and the original postcard will become part of Postcards from the Past – Eau Claire, which he expects to publish before year’s end.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves with this particular trip into the past. Tank’s most recently completed project portrays past scenes of Menomonie and surrounding communities. Postcards from the Past – Dunn County is the outgrowth of Postcards from the Past – Menomonie, which came out last year. When Tank published the first book, he had already captured 10 additional scenes, and he never stopped scouring eBay for vintage postcards and shooting photos. The new volume is filled with old-time scenes from Menomonie as well as Boyceville, Cedar Falls, Colfax, Downsville, Elk Mound, and Knapp. The visual tour gives a then-and-now glimpse of how these communities have changed in the past century.
Tank relishes the historical and visual detective work, even if it is time-consuming: Sometimes he has to make repeated trips to a particular spot, or even acquire multiple postcards, to get his photograph just right. The results are 50 pairs of fascinating then-and-now images. The book is part history lesson, part Where’s Waldo? hunt. Consider a 1940s photo of the Dunn County Courthouse: The courthouse is long gone – the property is now Wilson Park – but Tank was able to reproduce the original photo by noticing a distinctive porch on a nearby house, which still stands.
In some pairs of photos, the transformation over time is radical. In others, little has changed but the height of trees and the fashions of pedestrians. Among the book’s many highlights are the photos of the Broadway Street bridge over the Red Cedar River. In the original photo, taken in 1946, the current bridge had been built, but the previous bridge was still visible under it. In the new photo – which Tank snapped from atop a stone fence at the Wilson Place Museum – the old bridge is gone and the water level in the river and the adjacent Lake Menomin is considerably higher.
Another notable juxtaposition is provided by a 1904 image of Main Street, which shows a nonexistent electric rail car in the center of the thoroughfare. Like his turn-of-the-century predecessor, Tank had some fun with his version of the vista, adding a modern streetcar to the scene with the help of Photoshop. (“I figured if they could fake it, so could I,” he said.)
Beyond the city limits of Menomonie, you’ll find pictures showing how much (and how little) has changed in downtown Colfax, on the streets of Boyceville, atop the mound in Elk Mound, and more.
In addition to having taken 30 of the 50 pictures he needs for his forthcoming Eau Claire book, Tank is also in the midst of producing a similar book with scenes from Fond du Lac, his hometown. The Fond du Lac postcards were a serendipitous discovery at an antique store in Memphis, Tenn., where the proprietor handed a box full of them to Tank as soon as he walked in the door. “I said, ‘OK, I guess I know the next city I’m doing,’ ” Tank recalled. Tank, it appears, will find himself toggling between the past and present well into the future.
Tank will be signing copies of his new book, Postcards from the Past – Dunn County, at the Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts, 205 Main St. E, Menomonie, from 3-6pm Thursday, July 14. The book is available in Menomonie at Bookends on Main, the Mabel Tainter Center, the Rassbach Heritage Museum, and in Eau Claire at the Chippewa Valley Museum and The Local Store, 205 N. Dewey St. You can also find it online at postcardsfromthepast.net.