Bob Baxter, CEO of Dryden Mutual Insurance Company, and Gwen Seaquist, president of the Board for the History Center in Tompkins County at the Celebrating History Awards Jan. 29.

Bob Baxter got his first taste of local history involvement when the Village of Dryden celebrated its 200th birthday in 1997.

Twelve years later, in 2009, the president and CEO of Dryden Mutual Insurance undertook arguably his biggest project, collecting local glass plate negative photographs and producing an art history book.

The enlarged photographs hang one-by- one on nearly every hallway wall at the Dryden Mutual Insurance offices in Dryden. In Baxter’s office, he has one of a horse-drawn carriage moving away down a snow and tree lined lane. It was used on a company Christmas card one year.

The other walls contain diplomas, Air Force medals, memorabilia and awards, a category that grew by one after The History Center in Tompkins County’s second annual Celebrating History Awards ceremony held at Marcham Hall in Cayuga Heights Jan. 29.

The non-profit organization gave out six awards, including a Local History Engagement Award to Baxter for his long association with the organization.

“Bob believes in the power of local history to enrich our lives,” History Center executive director Rod Howe said at the ceremony.

Baxter, 70, said he became interested in history when he started working at Dryden Mutual in 1994 (on Jan. 3 to be exact) and became motivated to start exploring local history.

“We are pretty much who our ancestors were,” Baxter said from his office Friday, Feb. 10. “We don’t like to always think of it that way, but we’re living in society dominated by people who lived in the late 18th century.

“The constitution, the republic, their ideas are still governing our country. We are pretty much what people made us today. These are the people who built the area. They were the ones who built this company for that matter. I find that interesting.”

Dryden Mutual Insurance is a co-op, meaning its policyholders are part owners. One of those was Verne Morton, a Groton man born in 1868 who devoted himself to photographing rural and village life beginning in 1896 while teaching in Groton, Dryden, Lansing and Locke.

His brother, Neil, was also a policyholder with what was then known as “Dryden & Groton Mutual Fire Insurance Company.” Baxter said their neighbors were likely also policyholders.

So in 2009, with the company’s 150th anniversary approaching on May 7, 2010, Baxter created an art history book using 150 of Morton’s photographs. Tompkins Cortland Community College (TC3) associated photography professor Harry Littell worked with the glass negatives, blowing them up as large as they could go.

Because it was glass, the photos are still incredibly crisp and detailed at more than two feet tall.

Ron Ostman, a retired Cornell University professor in the communication department, did research of the photos based on notes left by Morton. Each photo in the book, titled “Great Possibilities,” from the late 1800s and early 1900s has a description on the opposite page.

“He was busy documenting that changeover from horses to vehicles,” Baxter said. “So again, we are who they made us whether we realize that or not.”

The book was distributed to public and university libraries around Upstate New York and is for sale at the Dryden Town Historical Society and The History Center. It won five national book awards and people still walk into the Dryden Mutual Insurance office and “give the photos new life,” as Baxter said, but telling its stories.

People have come to say the person in the pictures was their grandfather or family friend; one woman looked a photo of children outside at a mock tea party and said she knew where that tea set was.

The Town of Groton has since embraced Morton as its own, above all hosting a Verne Morton photography contest ever year in conjunction with its Olde Home Days festival.

Baxter was also instrumental in enlisting Dryden Mutual to become the major financial sponsor for the renovations and restoration project at the Eight Square Schoolhouse on Hanshaw Road in Dryden. The one-room schoolhouse is form 1890 and has seen many fourth-grade classes from the county inside its walls for visits, including Baxter’s children.

“We had to renovate it so it didn’t collapse on the ears of these fourth-graders,” Baxter said.

Dryden Mutual, under Baxter’s leadership, was also a funding sponsor for the Civil War Nurses Memorial at TC3 that was unveiled this past fall. The three statues near the drive in front of the main building honor women from the county who served as nurses in the Civil War, a group typically lost in history.

Last year, it volunteered to be the first, and still only, sponsor of the History Center’s “The History Forge” project that uses old local commercial building maps and genealogical records.

His first project, back in 1997, was sponsoring the creation of a light opera written for the 200th anniversary celebration of the village that was performed at both TC3 and Cornell University. Titled “Jennie’s Will,” it covered what Baxter said was really the “first major scandal” surrounding Jennie McGraw’s premature death and her will.

The McGraw family was a prominent Dryden lumber merchant family who gave money to Cornell to build the now iconic McGraw Tower; Jennie donated the bells and founded Dryden’s Southworth Library.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

This is a space for civil feedback and conversation. A few guidelines: 1. be kind and courteous. 2. no hate speech or bullying. 3. no promotions or spam. If necessary, we will ban members who do not abide by these standards.

Recommended for you