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Living History: Prolific photographer served as the memory of Vernal

Published February 3, 2014 10:55 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

During a recent visit to Vernal, I caught sight of the night sky streaming across the tall glass and steel building of the handsome new Uintah County Library and knew long-time resident and prolific photographer Leo C. Thorne would have had a field day. Born in 1883, Leo grew up on Ashley Creek. Later, the family homesteaded land by Taylor Mountain and in Dry Fork Canyon before moving to nearby Jensen.

His father, George, cleared fields and raised crops, tended sheep and managed beehives. His mother, Louisa, was a district schoolteacher on both sides of Green River. She had a penchant for canaries and knew how to pick and dry wild buffaloberries for winter. She also taught Sunday school at the Congregational church — the very place where outlaw Elza Lay would attend Bible classes and sing in the choir when he wasn't riding with Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch gang.

Leo's childhood was spent doing chores and exploring the land. He hunted for arrowheads and buffalo bones, fished for cutthroat trout, and had an insatiable appetite for gleaning Native American culture and lore. At 12, he assumed more ranch responsibilities, drove sheep with his dad and ploughed 40 acres of land near Dry Fork Creek.

"We grubbed the brush and trees from the flat that lays just north of the big finger rock, and planted all of it with wheat so we would be sure of our bread," he wrote in memoirs reprinted in Doris Karren Burton's "Uintah County Prominent People."

Harvesting the wheat with a scythe and grain cradle, Leo wrote, "Hundreds of blue jays came in from every direction, and Dad shot and killed I don't know how many."

Leo's future promise was with the land until he turned 19. Thrown from his horse, he severely injured his back and his ranching days were over. He had to find other work.

The young man obtained a small box camera. Armed with "how-to" booklets, he strapped his "Brownie" and a tripod onto his bicycle handlebars and pedaled off to capture the vast Uintah County.

He photographed Vernal life and commerce, Native Americans, bucking broncos, mining disasters, bridge building, Flaming Gorge, and more.

"Leo was a prolific photographer who had an unending fascination with everything," said Ellen Kiever, Uintah County Regional History Center clerk. "He not only recorded the town, he was its memory."

In 1907, Leo opened Postcard Studio on South Vernal Avenue, later relocated to larger digs and eventually purchased and remodeled the Traveler's Hotel to house both studio and home. In the meantime, he married former Nebraskan, Pauline Stonecypher. A schoolteacher at Willcox Academy, Pauline sang alto, knew basketball and organized high school teams.

Leo honed his photographic craft by traveling to Denver, San Francisco, Chicago and Kansas City, Mo. for specialty classes. He purchased more camera equipment and colored landscape photographs. "Russian oil painting," he called it. "I took to mounting them on cards and they sold very rapidly. "

During World War II, Leo was asked to shoot cracks in the ceiling of a drift tunnel located six miles below Steamboat Rock in Dinosaur National Monument.

"Photo supplies were hard to come by and I didn't own a flash camera at the time," he wrote. "I would lay down on my back in the dark, focus my 35mm German 'Dollina' on a crack in the ceiling, open the lens, say 'shoot,' and a helper would fire a flash bulb."

For more than 50 years, Leo captured thousands of images. He dabbled in taxidermy, opened a museum and collected American Indian artifacts. After his death, a shrouded mummy was discovered in a dry cubbyhole space under the stairs of his house. It has since been repatriated.

Leo died in 1969. His negatives, some 300,000, are archived at the UCRH Center.

Historian Eileen Hallet Stone is the author of "Hidden History of Utah," a compilation of her Salt Lake Tribune columns. She may be reached at ehswriter@aol.com. The UCRHC seeks other Thorne images. If you know of any, please contact the center at 435-789-6276.