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BULLETpeople archive
People Archive Photo
Jeremy Rowe's collection of Arizona postcards and photographs includes more than 35,000 items.

© John Wagner

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History Major
Words and photographs make up most of Arizona's historical record, but if you ask collector Jeremy Rowe, there aren't enough pictures. That's why he's collected more than 35,000 photographs and postcards. And it's one of the best collections anywhere.

By David Schwartz

Jeremy Rowe has a passion for all things Arizona.

From early images of Territorial expeditions and the Grand Canyon to stark depictions of the state's Native inhabitants, Rowe devoutly believes the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words — and sometimes much more. Yet he says that images unfairly take a back seat to the written word in piecing together Arizona's history.

The 60-year-old is on a mission to change all that.

"Photographs are as valuable as written materials and should be looked at in the same way," says Rowe, an emeritus professor at Arizona State University. "They inform each other, interact with each other and help tell a story."

Rowe knows a little bit about collecting. His compilation of 19th and early 20th century Arizona photographs features more than 35,000 items, including some 15,000 postcards. It is considered one of the largest and best of its kind in the state.

Rowe first ventured into the hobby with comic books, but not just your run-of-the-mill ones. At one time, he had the second issue of the Batman comic book, as well as complete sets of The Flash, Green Lantern, The Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man.

Rowe shakes his head with regret that the now-valuable books are gone, given away by his mother long ago. He has no idea where they ended up.

"You always think, when they show up at auctions, Maybe that's mine," he says. "But there's really no way to know."

During his college years, Rowe collected big-name cars to help pay the bills. Sort of. He kept the vehicles long enough to fix them up, ride in them for a while, and then sell them for a tidy profit — like the Ferrari he bought and sold that was once owned by the actor James Cagney.

In graduate school, Rowe became interested in photographs and the stories behind them after he saw a collection at a swap meet.

It's been full speed ahead ever since.

Rowe's Arizona images span from 1851 to the 1940s and run the gamut of media, including sketchbooks, ambrotypes, tintypes, silver prints, stereographs and postcards. He also collects photo equipment.

A prize in his collection is the 1851 sketchbook by Henry Cheever Pratt, an artist who accompanied John Russell Bartlett on a survey of the boundary between the United States and Mexico. It includes drawings of San Diego, Yuma, the Gila River and Pima Indians. The sketches later formed the basis for Pratt's paintings.

Rowe's earliest Arizona photos are H.H. Edgerton shots from 1864. They feature Papago warriors armed with bows, arrows and guns at a ranch building in Aravaipa.

Then there are the postcards. Rowe's collection runs deep between the years of 1905 and 1920 and includes images of a Clarkdale parade, early Oatman, a mining strike in Globe and a railroad yard in Wickenburg. There's even a postcard of a postcard rack in Jerome. And still more.

"I've got it bad," Rowe says. "When I find something great, I have to have it. You try to find a way to get it."

He purchased one postcard in Tucson that had some corner damage. It was sold as a copy print, but Rowe got a big surprise when he turned it over. The original was stuck to the back.

The 1910 image depicts a funeral for a local street dog in Tombstone. About a dozen men in suits with American flags are pictured with the cloth-wrapped dog atop the coffin. Beer bottles filled with flowers decorate each corner of the coffin.

Lawrence Jones, an Austin, Texas, photo collector who has known Rowe for three decades, says his friend is a focused, thorough individual.

"He is just about as passionate as any of the collectors I know," says Jones, who sold his 5,000-piece collection to Southern Methodist University in Texas about four years ago and has started another collection. "He is very quiet, but he's very intense. He has so much energy."

He also says Rowe is unselfish. "He loves to share what he's got. So many people are hoarders. He's not one of them."

Rowe finds items for his collection here, there and everywhere. For example, the 1864 Edgerton photos came from eBay. And he has success following the money, finding his items in places like Boston, Kansas City, Philadelphia and New York, and from those who invested in Arizona early on.

A big find came from a company in Amsterdam that spent millions on mining in Arizona and sent back photos to show how their dollars were being put to use. The company went out of business and officials sold the photos.

Still, Rowe is on the hunt for more.

"Whenever you have a gap in what you have, that's the Holy Grail," he says. "[You don't stop] until you find it."

At the moment, Rowe's Holy Grail is an original photograph that was, according to rumor, made during an 1857 Joseph Christmas Ives expedition of the Colorado River. The photograph may represent one of the earliest images ever made of Arizona.

"There's nothing worse than a collection that doesn't grow," Rowe says. "It's the chase that's the real exciting part, not the ownership of the material. The chase never gets old."

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