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Exhibit tells the story of pioneering Montreat photographer
The end of the 19th century brought with it a new destination in the Swannanoa Valley when the Reverend John C. Collins, a Congregational minister from Connecticut, purchased 4,500 acres of land to create a mountain retreat for fellow Christians. It would go on to become a place where generations of people would seek rest and fellowship in the friendly confines of the cove.
The history of what is now known as Montreat (a combination of the words “mountain” and ‘retreat”) is a well-documented one, but an exhibit at the Presbyterian Heritage Center that opens on Saturday, Sept. 1 will shed light on an unsung woman who helped ensure that was the case.
Alice Margaret Dickinson is not a household name and not a lot is known about her. She was born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1877 and arrived in Montreat, where her brother Francis acquired a lot after the Reverend J.R. Howerton purchased the retreat from the original owners, around 30 years later.
In a place where picturesque scenes were all around, Dickinson began photographing the landscape, which was perfectly suited for postcards. That’s how Joe Standaert and his wife Mary, who co-authored Montreat of the Postcard History Series from Arcadia Publishing, first came across Dickinson’s work.
“My wife and I have been connected to postcards since the 1980s,” said Standaert, the curator of the Dickinson exhibit. “We started with former town administrator Ron Nalley. Our first trip here there was a notice on the Post Office bulletin board asking for old postcards from Montreat.”
The couple began scouring nearby antique stores for them and amassed a collection of “around 800,” Standaert said.
“I don’t remember how we got into Alice Margaret Dickinson, but we started noticing the copyrighted pictures,” he said. “We thought it was fairly limited.”
Standaert approached Presbyterian Heritage Center executive director Ron Vinson with the idea of a small exhibit displaying the postcards collected by the couple and Nalley.
“We thought we had this exhibit done about a month ago,” Standaert said.
That was when Lisa Harrold, the registrar and collections manager for the PHC, found journals among the 350 boxes of material left by Reverend Dr. Kenneth Foreman, Jr., who passed away in 2015. Foreman’s family had been coming to Montreat since the beginning.
“We found two journals that were kept by the Foreman children in 1908 and 1909,” Vinson said. “We were reading about how Dickinson set up a tent in the summertime and was selling pictures.”
It turns out, he said, that photography was much more than a hobby for Dickinson.
“She approached this as a professional business,” Vinson said. “She copyrighted many of her photos and to do that in those days you had to pay a fee to get an initial 28-year copyright.”
Her operation made her the first professional woman photographer in the Swannanoa Valley and placed her among a small group of professional women photographers, including Mary Bayard Wootten, Doris Ulmann and Margaret Warner Morley, who were operating in Western North Carolina at the time.
The PHC found dozens of original photographs by Dickinson, and additional images attributed to her. The collection includes portraits composed by the photographer between 1907-1910 as well.
The importance of Dickinson’s work during that time should not be underestimated, Vinson said.
“If she didn’t exist we would have a huge hole in the history of Montreat,” he said. “We’d also be missing some really good Black Mountain pictures too.”
A photograph of the Black Mountain sanatorium known as “The Pines,” and operated by Dr. Clyde Ellsworth Cotton can be attributed to Dickinson, Vinson said. Another of Black Mountain resident Lewis Patton, who served on the search party for Dr. Elisha Mitchell and later as the first marshal of Montreat, was also taken by her.
“She hasn’t gotten the credit she deserves,” Vinson said. “A lot of the iconic Montreat photos are hers.”
Standaert points to other places where people would’ve been familiarized with Dickinson’s photographs.
“We think a lot of her work was used in the early Montreat brochures without credit,” Standaert said. “We have found some of those images in her postcards.”
Dickinson also lived in Montreat for years. She purchased a house with her sister Helen in 1907 on Virginia Road, which they sold in 1919. They inherited their brother’s home on the same street in 1924 and owned it until 1933.
While research turned up enough information about Dickinson to warrant a much larger exhibit than originally envisioned, it did not turn up a definitive picture of her.
“Photographers love to hide behind the lens,” Vinson said, grinning.
Details of her life after her photography career, however, did emerge.
“Not only did she practice for almost 20 years, but in the fragile pre-Social Security era, as she gets older she takes jobs as the assistant manager at a lodge or as a housekeeper,” Vinson said. “She had to make due and she and her sister both ended up passing away in Asheville.”
Dickinson’s sister, who served as the librarian at Montreat Normal School (the predecessor to Montreat College) for over two decades, passed away in 1958. At the age of 86, Dickinson died in Asheville in 1963.
“They’re both buried in unmarked graves in Riverside (Cemetery),” Standaert said.
Dickinson’s story needs to be told, Vinson said, because she’s an important person in WNC history.
“I’m looking forward to Alice Margaret Dickinson getting her long overdue recognition as an important pioneering woman in commercial photography,” Vinson said.
The exhibit will be one of over 50 exhibits put together by the PHC since it opened in 2008.
"I think one of our missions, besides dealing with Presbyterian and Reformed history is looking into the history of Montreat and the surrounding area," Vinson said. "I try to make sure we always have an exhibit that deals with that history and this is one is a fun one."