When I met with Darrell Mengel, 69, a local man with an impressive photo collection, he said a lot of things that resonated. But one of the very first things he said was also one of the most compelling:
“People look at a picture and say things like, ‘I’ll always remember Uncle Harry.’ Well, no, you won’t always remember Uncle Harry. He’ll die, and 40 years from now that picture might get thrown away. And then you forget.”
Mengel is not a historian. In fact, he is a retired lathe operator from Victaulic. But he’s just as concerned with the preservation of history as any historian could be.
Most of Mengel’s collection is digital, taking the form of files on his hard drive. He has well over 1,000 pictures of Nazareth, from the 1800s to now, saved.
The centerpiece of his collection is a blue binder that consists of somewhere between 500 and 600 pictures of Nazareth, Bushkill Township and Tatamy, all printed in an eight-by-ten format and painstakingly organized.
His system is organized alphabetically by street, which means that each address, each individual building not only has a photo, but might have several throughout the eras, depending on how many incarnations it went through.
Some of the types of photos Mengel has include:
- Pictures of confirmation classes, work groups, school classes, digitally altered to include names. To do this, he must first seek out someone who worked or attended the place, and hope that they can place names to the faces.
- Aerial shots of the town from different eras, including an ink drawing from 1885 -- the artist couldn’t go up in an airplane, and had to painstakingly draw the accurate map using imagination and perspective.
- Street shots of Nazareth roads throughout history -- see the accompanying photo gallery for a great example. Some shots are horse-and-buggy pictures, adjacent to the same street 60 years later, lined with what are now considered classic cars.
- Pictures from historical events, like the runaway trolley car on Main Street in 1919 that caused a massive wreckage.
- Photos of businesses, like doctors’ offices, which are labeled with a small superimposed shot of the doctor, along with the years he practiced there.
- Side-by-side “then-and-now” pictures of buildings, like St. John's Lutheran Church on S. Broad Street. Mengel’s book includes shots of the church from 1859, 1910 and 2007. He even digitally alters the most recent photos to edit out power lines and road signs, leaving only a crisp image.
Photography was always a hobby for Mengel, who was born in Stockertown and moved to Nazareth around the age of nine.
“I’m not an expert by any means, but I find it nice when people in the audience say, ‘I remember that,’” Mengel said.
Some of the more recent photos he took himself; others were from Nazareth photographers of past decades, people like Harvey Deitz and Paul Stull, professionals who owned studios in town at one point.
Other photos are large copies of old postcards, which is actually how Mengel got started with his collection around 20 years ago -- by copying vintage postcards and blowing them up to eight-by-ten proportions.
“I never threw any of my photographs away,” he said, referring to the stacks of photo albums packed along a bookshelf. “Once computers came around, collecting really became possible.”
In addition to his Nazareth collection, he also has around 400 pictures of trains in and around the Slate Belt, and another thousand or so pictures of the Slate Belt area through the eras.
“The next thing is writing the history down,” he said. He wants to write notes on each picture, and try to find the names of the people who are in them. “If you can get the people’s names, that’s what makes a photograph.”
Mengel can’t sell his collection, mostly due to the vast number of postcards and pictures by other photographers; copyright laws can get hairy, and some of the original owners would be impossible to track down. Although there has been expressed interest in buying, for now he is content with sharing his collection with anyone who is interested.
“If people share with me, I will share with them… only about 20 percent of the pictures are actually mine,” he said.
He’s not sure what will happen to his photos, but he knows he’s not done yet.
“The collection is never finished,” Mengel said.