Solomon Devoe Butcher, the first of five children born to Thomas Jefferson and Esther Ullom Butcher, was born on January 24, 1856 in Burton, Virginia (which became part of Wetzel County, West Virginia after the Civil War). Within three years, the family relocated to Winona, Illinois, where Thomas Jefferson Butcher began a long association with the Illinois Central Railroad Company and his eldest son was introduced to photography. After a semester at Henry Military School, the junior Butcher became a tintype apprentice while supporting himself as a traveling salesman. In 1880, Mr. Butcher's father made the bold decision to quit his railroad job in favor of homesteading in Nebraska. Shortly thereafter, he and his brother George followed their father, and had received claims on land near the Middle Loup River. The sod house construction was an arduous undertaking, marred by the discovery of a human skeleton on the property. Within six weeks, Mr. Butcher had enough of homesteading and returned it to the government, declaring he would not have stayed "in exchange for 'the whole of Custer County'." He went to Minneapolis to attend medical school, where he met Lillie M. Barber Hamilton, whom he married on May 16, 1882. The couple later added a son and daughter to their family.
Within a year, Mr. Butcher and his wife returned to Nebraska, where he renewed his interest in photography. He took a teaching job in the Predmore District to finance his first studio construction. At the end of the winter semester, Mr. Butcher erected an 18 x 28" lathe and adobe structure, and when funds were depleted, cotton sheeting was used in place of glass, and the dirt floor reflected the rustic surroundings. With assistance from partner A. W. Darling, Mr. Butcher finally opened his gallery, proudly proclaiming, "There was not another art emporium like it west of the Mississippi River." Always struggling financially, Mr. Butcher supplemented his income by opening a post office in his gallery and assisting local farmers.
After relocating several times for economic reasons, Mr. Butcher decided compiling the history of Custer County might prove to be a lucrative proposition. His first assignment, photographing the sod house of Elizabeth Chrisman, led to a 30-year odyssey across the foothills of Nebraska, documenting numerous housing settlements while selling photographs and stories. Mr. Butcher was interested in capturing a unique moment in time, which involved more than mere human portraiture. His 1,500 photographs and hundreds of narratives provide insightful glimpses into the physical, cultural, and socioeconomic environment of the homesteaders. Shortly before completing his book, Mr. Butcher's home and manuscript were lost in a fire on March 12, 1899. Thankfully, his photographs were stored elsewhere, and The Pioneer History of Custer County was finally completed two years later.
In 1902, Mr. Butcher opened a gallery in Kearney, Nebraska that specialized in postcards and collaborated with his son on a history of Dawson County that generated more than 2 million postcard images. His wife died in 1915, and two years later he married Laura Brachear Nation. Mr. Butcher lengthy lobbying efforts to sell more than 3,500 of his glass plate negatives resulted in their purchase by the Nebraska State Historical Society. Seventy-one-year-old Solomon D. Butcher died in Greeley, Colorado on May 26, 1927. His photographs of Midwestern homesteading in the late-nineteenth century remain Mr. Butcher's most enduring legacy.
2004 Encyclopedia of the Great Plains (Lincoln, NE: Center for Great Plains Studies), p. 112.
1919 History of Custer County, Nebraska by W. L. Gaston and A. R. Humphrey (Lincoln, NE: Western Publishing and Engraving Company), pp. 962-967.
2010 Photographer Butcher 'Saved' the Sod House by Jim McKee, Lincoln Journal Star (URL: http://journalstar.com/news/local/jim-mckee-photographer-butcher-saved-the-sod-house/article_45f8d86c-07bc-11df-9ea9-001cc4c03286.html).
2001, Nebraska State Historical Society Website, Photograph of Soloman D. Butcher. (URL: http://www.nebraskahistory.org/lib-arch/research/photos/highlite/butcher/bio.htm)
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