A wide range of images of Kansas City – and no few mysteries – lie in a major collection of photographs now in the hands of the Jackson County Historical Society.
The Historical Society, headquartered in Independence, is just now starting to sort through the estimated 500,000 to 1 million prints and negatives from the commercial photographer Chris Wilborn.
Within a couple years, the aim is to have them sorted and posted online.
“The end goal is all online through JCHS,” said Executive Director Steve Noll.
Right now, some images have some information written on the back or the bottom, some have a little, and many have none. With everything online, the Historical Society plans to work with libraries, other historical societies and the public to begin filling in some of the blanks. It’s a big project.
“This is going to take volunteers. It’s going to take interns,” Noll said.
The collection illustrates a century of history in Kansas City and other parts of the Midwest. It’s from Chris Wilborn, 62, of Overland Park. He followed his father, Clarence Lee Wilborn, in the commercial photography business.
“I kept everything,” he said. “My dad kept all the negatives he shot.”
The elder Wilborn started shooting photographs roughly around World War II. Chris started in 1970. The business has changed, and there’s less demand for that type of work. Wilborn says he’s semi-retired, shooting high school, military and family reunions.
Plus, film is gone, and so are negatives. Everything is digital these days. The last images in the collection going to the Historical Society are from 2007.
But through the years, Wilborn kept the old negatives and stills – almost all black and white – in a cave storage area at 31st and Mercer in Kansas City. And over time he bought a few other collections from other commercial photographers as well. Some of those date to 1913.
Even quickly flipping through a few files among the scores of boxes gives a hint of what the collection holds. There’s the broadcast tower on 31st Street – now the Channel 19 tower – going up in the 1930s. And Goat Hill beyond the right field wall at the old Municipal Stadium. Scout events and church gatherings. Construction sites. A seat manufacturer wanted a building of a stadium documented.
Eastern Jackson County is there, too: The Strike & Spare bowling alley on U.S. 40 in Independence. A Polly’s Pop truck. Lots of Harry Truman. And even a man in a white apron with full rows of perfectly stacked items at the old Bradley’s Cut-Rate Market on College Avenue.
“They documented the everyday life of KC but from all different perspectives,” Noll said.
“You had to be a professional to do this photography,” he added, “because you had to get it right the first time.”
How many images?
“I’ve always said a million,” Wilborn said.
The Historical Society is buying the collection through a gift from Steve and Marianne Noll. Steve Noll is retiring as executive director at the end of the year.
“This is my legacy, I guess, to conclude my 12 years at JCHS. … We want to just share it,” he said.
Their donation also covers the cost of a project manager for the sorting-and-posting effort. That person starts Aug. 1.
“ … we want Kansas City to have it,” Marianne Noll said, and the Nolls also credited Wilborn for working to keep the collection in the area.
“It’s our gift to Kansas City’s local history for perpetuity,” Steve Noll said. “Kudos to Chris for wanting to keep it local.”