Wildflower photography collection is a ‘time capsule’ from the early days of the James River Park System
September 21, 2016
Between 1968 and 1971, Richmond environmentalist and James River advocate Newton Ancarrow snapped thousands of photographs of wildflowers, documenting more than 400 species, as he walked along the banks of the James, searching for evidence of illegal sewage dumping into the river.
Ancarrow, who is perhaps best remembered today for his namesake, the James River Park System’s easternmost waterfront park area and boat launch, Ancarrow’s Landing, used his wildflower photos in a slideshow presentation he gave to Richmond garden clubs, women’s groups and civic organizations as part of his efforts to drum up community support for a cleaner James River.
The Ancarrow Wildflower Digital Archive
From 1968 to 1971, noted environmentalist Newton Ancarrow documented and photographed more than 400 species of wildflowers along the banks of the James River in Richmond. VCU Libraries, in conjunction with the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden and the VCU Rice Rivers Center, has posted Ancarrow’s wildflower photography online. To view the Ancarrow Wildflower Digital Archive, visit:https://labs.library.vcu.edu/ancarrow/
The 354 wildflower photographs in that presentation, titled “Flower Show No. 2,” have been digitized by VCU Libraries and are being shared publicly for the first as an online digital collection, the Ancarrow Wildflower Digital Archive.
“These slides are special because they’re a snapshot in time at the very early beginnings of the James River Park System — before, during and maybe even a little bit after it was created,” said Anne Wright, director of outreach education for the VCU Rice Rivers Center and an assistant professor in the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “So, as a time capsule, they’re very interesting.”
Wright is the director of Science in the Park, an online collection of videos, lesson plans and activities, narrated walking tours, and guides to the geology, flora and fauna of the 600-acre James River Park System. As part of her work with Science in the Park, Wright heard about the Ancarrow wildflower slides from Ralph White, the retired longtime manager of the James River Park System.
“[White] mentioned something about Ancarrow’s collection of these wildflower pictures,” Wright said. “I didn’t know anything about them, and he said, ‘Oh yeah, they’re over at Lewis Ginter.’ So I went over and took a look, and I just thought they would make for a neat study. It could let us say, ‘Here’s what this man found 45 years ago. Let’s go see if we can find these same species of wildflowers in the park today.’”
After Ancarrow’s death in 1991, his family donated his 35,000 slides of photographs to Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden.
“Ancarrow was an early activist for cleaning up the James River. He was not afraid to take his complaints and evidence to the highest levels of the city, state and even federal government. His work to reveal raw sewage dumping into the James led him to wildflowers, which led to his 35,000-slide collection. He was driven,” said Janet Woody, librarian at Lewis Ginter. “The photos form a flora of the James River Park System land — he worked prepark system — and are very valuable as a record of native and introduced plants from that time period, circa 1965–75. Many of the photos are quite beautiful.”
Wright, the VCU Rice Rivers Center and Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden worked with VCU Libraries to scan the slides and post them online as part of a digital collection.
“We wanted to present high-res images of these slides because their high quality lends itself well to zooming in and seeing details,” said Sam Byrd, digital collections systems librarian with VCU Libraries. “With the additional information supplied by the staff of the VCU Rice Rivers Center, we have been able to designate whether these flowers are native to the area or not. Ancarrow put together notebooks full of botanical details and observations about the flowers he saw, and we are also presenting scans of those notebooks, along with the typed script of his slideshow and other documents that detail which slides he used.”
Along with the photos, VCU Libraries has posted a wealth of accompanying documentation and other material, including: an inventory of all of the wildflower species Ancarrow identified along the James River; Ancarrow's slideshow script, annotated with flower numbers to indicate when to change the slides; five loose-leaf notebooks compiled by Ancarrow, detailing his research on each species.
By combining the photographs and supplemental material, VCU Libraries was able to recreate Ancarrow’s hour-long presentation of “Flower Show No. 2.”
“His slideshow script actually references each individual slide he would show as well as the precise moment in the presentation when he would change slides,” Byrd said. “The Lewis Ginter collection included an audio recording of Ancarrow reading his script, so using the digitized images, the audio and the directions of the script, we have been able to recreate the slideshow as a video — the next best thing to actually being in the room with him in front of a slide projector.”
VCU Libraries has been working on the project since January 2015. It is part of VCU Libraries’ Community Digitization Program, an effort by the library to reach out and help outside agencies that do not have the staffing or facilities to digitize their unique collections.
Byrd said he hopes visitors to the Ancarrow Wildflower Digital Archive will come away from it with a sense of the variety and beauty of flowers along the James River.
“It gives a great idea of what was growing along the James River in the late 1960s, and will help increase awareness of what’s changed since then,” Byrd said. “Which of these wildflowers are still extant? What new species have been introduced since then? We also hope the collection highlights the important contribution Ancarrow made on the preservation of the James.”
Ancarrow, who served in World War II and then worked at American Tobacco and Experiment Inc. testing rocket engines, bought a New Jersey-based boat-building business and relocated it to Richmond in 1957. In the mid-1960s, he built a boat ramp on the James River’s south side, at what is now Ancarrow’s Landing, and opened it to the public.
“He was incensed that the river was as dirty as it was, and that the city was dragging its feet in cleaning it.”
Soon thereafter, however, Ancarrow found his boat bottoms and ramp were covered with an oily film, largely from the heating oil dumped into the river. The mess, and a lack of responsiveness from government officials, led Ancarrow to launch his years-long crusade to clean up the river.
“He was incensed that the river was as dirty as it was, and that the city was dragging its feet in cleaning it,” Wright said. “So he went on this rampage with the city, which didn’t work out too well for him. As a way to decompress, he’d go out and take pictures of these flowers. But he also had the ulterior motive of going out and talking to people and hooking them with the beauty of the river and drawing them into his cause.”
Woody said she hopes the Ancarrow Wildflower Digital Archive will “give people something new to think about and look for when they visit the park” and also give Richmonders a greater understanding of Ancarrow’s contributions to the James River and the city.
“[I hope it gives] an appreciation of the man and his passion and commitment to a clean James River,” she said. “I hope people will learn to appreciate our clean river and usable river banks and know that they have to be preserved and protected.”
In the spring, Wright is planning to invite VCU students, members of local garden clubs and Virginia Master Naturalist volunteers, as well as the general public, to recreate Ancarrow’s work to photograph and document wildflowers along the James River in Richmond.
The idea, she said, is to be able to compare the quantity and variety of wildflowers today with those identified in Ancarrow’s days.
“That will be our post-study. [Ancarrow’s] work is a pre-study. He documented around 400 species, and we’re going to hit that same area and see how many we come up with,” she said.
Along with Wright, Woody and Byrd, a number of VCU Libraries current and former staffers worked on the project over the past year-and-a-half, notably including: Lauren Work, who did the heavy lifting on the initial organization and coordination of the project; Drew Rollo and a student worker, Shannon Roulet, who did the actual scanning; Mary Anne Dyer, who helped with the metadata and description; Joe Woods, who created the video and did additional scanning; and Alison Tinker, who created the online microsite. VCU Libraries interns Mackenzie Huber and Livia Marrs helped with organization, transcriptions and species list details. Lucy Coggin, a Lewis Ginter staff member, and Betsy Slade, a Lewis Ginter volunteer, contributed their expertise to ensure that each plant was properly identified.