An early postcard (top) shows the Arch Bridge over Little Meshoppen Creek that was recently demolished to make way for a span with a larger spillway. It comes from the vast collection of Don and Gail (Griffith) James (shown above in 1954).
By Rick Hiduk
(As seen in Living Susquehanna/Wyoming County Magazine)
Meshoppen Township resident Gail James is not the only historian in her community, and she will humbly insist that neither is she the most prolific filer of photos, postcards and other memorabilia in the area. What is unique about her collection is the integration of old pieces handed down to her and photos taken by Gail and her late husband, Don James, since the 1950s.
“I just came from a curious family,” Gail explains. “They didn’t think of themselves as photographers. They just liked to preserve pictures.” Gail is the daughter of Leo “Johnny” and Arlene Smales Griffith. Don was the son of Bill and Louise James.
Some of the oldest photos in her collection date back to the late 1800s and include numerous fires and floods in Meshoppen, as well as photo time lines of construction projects like bridges and highways. While the person behind many of the postcard shots can no longer be identified, many of the real photos she has were taken by her grandfather, Clark Smales.
To Gail and Don, photography was simply another genre of art and form of expression. Both were accomplished musicians, having met as members of marching bands from neighboring high schools. They actually attended the same elementary school but did not get to know each other until Don traveled with the Tunkhannock High School Marching Band on Oct. 30, 1952 to Meshoppen for a Halloween parade. Don played the trumpet, and Gail was a snare drummer with the Meshoppen High School Band.
Don entered the Navy, where a camera became his new instrument of choice. Upon his return, he and Gail were married at the Meshoppen United Methodist Church in July 1955 and, in many ways, became a hard act to follow.
After a stint as a member of the Belltones, Don left the local Gospel quartet and formed a new act with Gail. He would sing as Gail accompanied him on the keyboard. They kicked the act up a notch when they incorporated a color slide show.
“Don would pick a song. Then we’d go out and take pictures to go with it,” Gail recalls. Their repertoire featured a variety of hymns and other patriotic, Gospel and inspirational songs. Their travels across the country provided them with plenty of material to depict God’s ample glory.
Don and Gail performed for churches, civic groups, and banquets. Both held full time jobs, and they were careful not to let their hobby as performers feel too much like work. Though they did travel as far away as Harrisburg, they tried to keep their gigs within a two-hour drive so they could be home before dark. Gail still likes to get home before dark.
“We did not charge,” Gail relates. “Sometimes they would take up a little offering for us for expenses.”
In 1984, the couple joined the Montrose Camera Club formed by professional photographers Charles Denkenberger and Ralph Taylor. “They had been at it for a long time, and they were very good,” says Gail. “They were willing to help us become better.”
The club regularly held competitions, and the Jameses garnered a number of awards. Nonetheless, Gail contends, “Don was the best photographer.”
They continued to entertain after retiring from their careers, taking breaks as Gail twice battled bouts of cancer. Don grew too ill to perform in 2008 and died of cancer a year later.
Entertaining friends and archiving the history of the Meshoppen area were just a few of the many ways that the couple served the community. Don’s contributions to society, including his military service, are honored annually when the Don James Award is given by American Legion Post 510 in Black Walnut to a Wyoming County resident who exemplifies the volunteer spirit.
Gail remains active with her church and enjoys vacationing in places where there are always plenty of directions to point her camera. At home, her concept of “pacing herself” makes her younger neighbors feel a bit lethargic as they watch Gail march down country roads for exercise or head out to the gym.
She’s always got an eager eye on the future. But it’s Gail’s vast collection of postcards and photos, including carefully marked boxes containing more than 20,000 color slides, that connect her to the past and keep her memories of family and friends, her husband Don, and Meshoppen the way it was alive.
“We just liked taking pictures and sharing them,” Gail James says of all the effort she and Don poured into their hobby. She continues to share their photos as a regular contributor to the Facebook page “You Know You’re From Meshoppen if…” The “people” pictures, she notes, are especially popular, as Facebook users help to name photo subjects and share their own memories.
Firefighters spray water in vein on this 1943 fire, as seen from the bridge on opposite side and aftermath.
The intersection of Auburn and Oak streets in Meshoppen was leveled by fire in 1893. The plank bridge in foreground crossing Little Meshoppen Creek predates the iconic Arch Bridge currently being replaced.
A leafless view of Meshoppen in 1961 shows a vast number of structures that have since been removed after floods and fires.
Two postcards dating to the early 1900s offer “birds-eye” views of Meshoppen
This bridge constructed over Meshoppen Creek prior to 1920 was likely replaced by the current Route 6 bridge at the west end of town.
Women in late-Victorian styles rest on the lawn of the manse of the Catholic Church in Meshoppen. A note on the photo says that the house was built by the Loomis family in the 1880s.
The Commonwealth Garage along Route 6 at the bottom of Meshopany Ridge Road doubled as a car dealership that was apparently holding a big promotion on this evening early in 1961. The former Tyler Memorial Hospital is in the background.
Gail James’s husband, Don, parks his jeep momentary in front of the doors of the old Meshoppen Fire Company station at the base of Meshopany Ridge Road.
Between the fires and floods, downtown Meshoppen at the intersection of Auburn Street and the Roosevelt Highway shows many intact buildings in the 1930s.
Just as we now throw ’70s and ’80s parties, Don & Gail James (right) are shown with friends at a “Flapper Party” held in the mid ’50s at the Methodist Church Hall.
Meshoppen Post Office employee Fred Canfield proves that the mail must get through in this shot from 1958, even though rural residents were snowed in for three days.
The Meshoppen United Methodist Church Girls Choir in 1954.
An undated post card photo of the old Meshoppen High School.
Before there was Marty’s Market, there was Jayne’s Grocery Store on Auburn Street, which was damaged by this fire in 1970. Marty’s eventually replaced it and burned to the ground on this spot in 2010.
A photo taken in the early 1950s at Meshoppen High School shows Norma Space accidentally photo-bombing a posed shot featuring Judy and Mary Joan.
The building that would house the original Tyler Memorial Hospital and then Ken Mar Furniture was known as the Kennard Hotel in the early 1900s.
Major reconstruction of Route 6 between 1963 and 1964 moved it from Allen Street, at the left of this photo, up over the hill at right).
The Meshoppen road crew takes a lunch break in this 1961 shot.
The newly constructed Route 6 was getting a fresh layer of concrete from east to west in this 1964 photo.
Meshoppen has virtually no protection from the Susquehanna River, which takes a big turn where Meshoppen Creek empties into it. This spring flood of 1936 was just one of many historic inundations of the borough.
The intersection of Oak and Auburn streets (looking west) during the 1972 flood.
The Auburn Street bridge at Meshoppen Creek is under water in this June 1972 shot.
Barbara Gould Sanders of Meshoppen stands in front of Gould’s Furniture store in the 1950s.
Don James (front, left) marches with the color guard as the return of local military veteran Charlie Baker is celebrated in Meshoppen in 2005.
Don and Gail James were no strangers to the ravages of cancer and were supporters of Relay for Life, as shown at this rally photo from 2004.
Route 6 at Ken Mar Furniture is under water again this 2004 photo.
Potts Falls, just up Meshoppen Creek from the center of town, was publicly accessible and routinely visited by townsfolk during most of Meshoppen’s early history.