WIUM Tristates Public Radio

The Forgotten Photos of Plymouth

Jul 31, 2015

The black and white photograph, taken in 1912, shows George "Duffy" Lawton standing outside a clapboard shack propped up on stones and concrete. He's gazing up at the smiling love of his life, Harriette White, whose head and torso poke out through an open window.

For decades, White wrote about life in Plymouth, Illinois, in a style that Mary Fairchild Bunny called “very Victorian, very descriptive.”  Bunny said, “She would take the most plain wedding and make it the most elaborate event.”

But the longtime couple never had anyone write about their wedding in a grand and poetic style because they never became husband and wife.

“His mother refused to allow them to get married. So they were boyfriend-girlfriend for their lifetimes. And they were always together and they’re buried next to each out other at the Plymouth cemetery,” said Bunny.

Part of the "Forgotten Photos" exhibit
Credit Abby Wendle

The story of Lawton and White is one of many to be found in The Forgotten Photos of Plymouth, a project Bunny started a few years ago when a building on the town square was about to be torn down. Bunny said she knew she had to get into it before it was razed because the building was once used by Bob Cox, who Bunny described as the town photographer.

One of the many Bob Cox photos that Mary Fairchild Bunny saved from destruction.

“Boxes and boxes of his negatives were found in the building.  They had been there for 40 years,” said Bunny.

“There was no roof on the building so many of them were destroyed. We took the ones we could and I scanned them and converted them into positive images.”

Bunny said Cox did family portraits, shot yearbook photos, and worked for the local newspaper.

“This is one of my favorite pictures,” said Bunny pointing to one of the many snapshots in time.

“This is at Biney’s Restaurant. It’s long gone. But I think it’s just such a cool black and white picture with the lady working at the counter. It’s not a posed picture. It’s just a casual ‘during her day’ kind of picture.”

More of the "Forgotten Photos."
Credit Abby Wendle

The Forgotten Photos of Plymouth are shared on a Facebook page, they were included as part of a traveling Smithsonian exhibit in Hancock County last year, and Bunny shows them during events such as the Old Settler’s Day festival in Plymouth. 

The photo collection has grown as others have given Bunny old photos, yearbooks, and scrapbooks, creating a pictorial history of a small town in west central Illinois.

Gene Post (center) was part of the Plymouth High School basketball team that advanced to the state sectionals. “It was an exceptional team and we had a great following from the community,” said Post.

The photos provided a trip down memory lane for Gene Post, who played for the 1957 Plymouth High School basketball team that made it to the state sectionals, the farthest the school ever advanced.  Post praised the Forgotten Photos project while acknowledging the town has changed quite a bit over the years.

“She (Bunny) has sort of renewed the interest in a lot of Plymouth history.  And it’s like a lot of other small towns.  Economically it’s going downhill. But she’s kept it alive,” Post said.

Bunny agreed that Plymouth has changed over the years – and not for the better.

“It was in the 1970s that it started to die. Factories closed, families moved away. There were no factories here in Plymouth but in local (towns) like Macomb and Colchester they closed and so families moved away,” Bunny said.

“Farms have gotten bigger and bigger and there’s not as many children on a farm so there’s not as many kids in the schools and the schools close. It’s just a vicious cycle.”

Dot Burnett is performing her circus act in this photo taken by Rod Cookson.

The town’s population spiraled downward to 562 in the 2000 census, and continued to slide in the following decade.  The most recent census came up with a headcount of 475.

Some of the remaining buildings on the square are empty.  Some are crumbling and without a roof.  Bunny doubts Plymouth will return to its former glory.  But she continues to live there.

“I’m the fifth generation to live in the house that I live in. I kind of feel an obligation to keep it in the family. If we didn’t have a house in town, I think we would probably move on to Quincy or Macomb,” she said.

“There’s no magic pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that’s going to save it (the town). Just keep what you have. Protect it. Preserve it. Share it. And go on.”

A ghost sign in downtown Plymouth today.
Credit Abby Wendle