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Photo exhibit captures Waynesboro history

December 23, 1998

Sylvester SnyderBy RICHARD F. BELISLE / Staff Writer, Waynesboro

photo: KEVIN G. GILBERT / staff photographer




WAYNESBORO, Pa. - Rows of black-and-white photographs, about 100 in all, hang in the back room of Alexander Hamilton Free Library. They tell a story of Waynesboro in the late 1930s through the '50s as seen through the lens of Sylvester S. Snyder.

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Snyder's work, hundreds of negatives filed away in boxes at home, mostly in black and white, is a trove of history for this small community. His lens captured Waynesboro at a time when life was slower and low-tech, a time when everybody knew everybody else.

His photographs are on display at the library through the end of December.

Snyder, 91, graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1930 with a degree in civil engineering, then got a job at Landis Tool as a mechanical engineer. The Landis job, close to home, was too good to pass up.

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He bought his first camera, an Argus, for $12.50.

"They were just coming out with 35 millimeter cameras and they were trying to promote them," he said.

Snyder married Mary Steiner in 1934. Soon afterward, he decided he wanted a hobby. "I looked at a number of things, even raising goldfish, but I couldn't find anything I could develop any interest in," he said.

When his daughters, Julie and Molly, came along, he took up photography so he could record their progress. The hobby turned into a passion that went far beyond family photographs.

He began taking pictures seriously in the late 1930s after he bought a Zeiss Contax, an excellent camera of its day and the only one he ever used, he said.

He borrowed $150 from a bank, the only loan he's ever had, to buy it. He earned the money to pay it off by teaching math part time at the high school.

Snyder bought the camera by mail from a New York camera shop. It had been brought to America by a German Jew who was fleeing the Nazi regime, he said.

"Those who left were not allowed to bring money, but they did bring things that they could convert to money," he said.

The camera made a long journey before Snyder bought it, and it would be years before it got a rest. The photographs it has produced in Snyder's hands capture the essence of Waynesboro 40, 50, and 60 years ago.

His 1938 shot of the old Arcade movie theater with patrons lined up to buy tickets for "You Can't Take It With You," starring Jean Arthur and James Stewart, turned up years later as one of local artist Landis Whitsell's series of Waynesboro paintings.

There are photos of Snyder's family, especially of his daughters as they were growing up.

There is a time-delay self-portrait of Snyder as a young father changing his daughter's diaper. He titled it "Mother's First Night Out."

Many were taken in winter. Some showed up on his annual Christmas cards. This year's, taken in 1938, is of the downtown Christmas parade. "It's 60 years old this year," he said.

Other winter scenes shows kids sledding down State Road Hill southeast of town, people shoveling snow on Clayton Avenue, a snowy night at Church and Third streets and Welty Bridge laced with snow.

Some photos made a statement. One shows a Waynesboro police officer stopping traffic on Public Square so a couple can cross. It's titled, "It Was Once a Public Service."

There's a photo of two little girls, barefoot and in dresses, on a city street buying ice cream from John Rossi's handcart. Snyder captured that scene in 1937.

Another that showed a sign of the times was of a war bond drive through downtown. The prop was the mangled wreckage of a German Messerschmitt fighter plane. A sign says the plane was shot down over the beaches of Anzio in 1943.

There's a shot of a boy in knickers crossing the street. "I took it because I used to wear knickers myself," Snyder said.

He doesn't know what he's going to do with his collection or where it will end up.

"I guess I'll give it to the family," he said.

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