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Window in time — Amateur photographer captured anything that moved under its own power

Bill Winther loved planes, trains and automobiles. And more than that, he loved taking pictures of them.

And why not? The ability of things to move under their own power was undergoing dramatic change in the early part of the 20th century — and so was the ability to capture those machines on film. Winther grew up amid those changes and developed a lifelong interest in them.

Winther had been born in the little fishing village of Kolbjornsvik, on the island of Arendal, off the coast of Norway, on March 21, 1907, the youngest of six children. Like many other converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, his parents decided to immigrate to America.

But, because the family was too poor for all of them to make the trip at once, the father, Hans, and the oldest son, Nils, made the journey first.

The two Winthers arrived in Salt Lake City and found work on the railroad, where they earned enough money to send for other family members.

Bill Winther was 4 years old when he arrived in America. Some of the family stayed in Salt Lake City, but Hans, and his wife, Johanne Amalie, and several of their sons took advantage of the Homestead Act and obtained the rights to a dry farm in Dehlin, Idaho.

Hans had been a ship's carpenter by trade in Norway, and dry framing was vastly different. The family struggled along. Then Johanne Amalie contracted scarlet fever and died. The Winthers ended up selling the farm and moving back to Salt Lake City.

But you wonder if perhaps on long winter nights on the farm, Hans talked to his son about his experience with the railroad. Perhaps working with the farm machinery of the day also captured the boy's interest.

"All his life, Bill had a keen interest in anything mechanical," says A. Dennis Mead, whose grandmother was Bill Winther's sister. That interest even turned into Bill's life work. "After a time working as a truck driver, hauling coal for the operation of the Salt Lake Laundry at 857 S. Main in Salt Lake City, he eventually obtained a job as a mechanic for International Harvester, where he remained until his retirement."

That career was complemented by Winther's interest in photography. "As soon as he was able to buy a camera, he began to photograph anything that moved under its own power," says Mead. "He would take his camera everywhere he went — to family picnics, to airports, to car races and to the streets and byways of Salt Lake City. It was as though his camera were an extension of his arm."

That hobby resulted in what Mead calls "a priceless collection of pictures, mostly black and white, dating from as far back as the early 1920s, with a few even earlier."

Photography was not necessarily a cheap hobby in those days, especially in the quantities that Winther was taking pictures, and most of what he took never made it into print, says Mead. "The collection of negatives, however, was carefully laid away and continued to grow year by year."

After Winther's death in 1981, his cameras and negative collection came into the hands of a grandson, Kyle T. Winther, who began to print some of the pictures in a homemade darkroom.

But Kyle's busy work schedule didn't allow much time for photographic work, and that's where Mead, a second-cousin to Kyle, came in. Mead had a new computer and scanner, "so I offered to scan all the negatives and organize them into an indexed collection that could be made available through DVDs to any member of the family who might desire a copy."

Little did he know exactly what he was getting into, he says, with a laugh.

Once all the negatives were scanned, there was the monumental task of trying to identify who and what were in the pictures. Calling on Bill Winther's 96-year-old widow and other members of the family, Mead went through hundreds of pictures, identifying as many of the people and events as possible — a process that has taken a couple of years, and even then a lot of pictures could not be pinpointed.

Even so, while the photographs are a priceless treasure for family members, the older shots especially also create a remarkable look at early transportation in Salt Lake City.

By the 1920s and '30s, when Winther began taking pictures, trains had been around for a long time; after all, the railroad had come to Utah in 1869, with the joining of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific lines at Promontory Point. Most of the trains in use in the 1920s were still the old steam locomotives, however, and Winther has pictures of them. But that was changing. Streamlined, diesel and electric engines were being introduced in the mid-1930s, and they eventually made their way west and into his camera lens.

Airplanes, however, were still relatively new on the scene. The Wright brothers made their historic first flight in 1903, but it took awhile for planes to become commercially feasible. The benefits of air power became clear in World War I, but following the war, the skies were mostly the venue of airmail and stunt pilots.

But Salt Lake City was at the forefront of those developments. In 1920, the city was added to the airmail route and, according to a Deseret News report in May of that year, "will be required to establish a flying field and hangar, and the government will spend fully $26,000 in improvements." Winther took pictures of that facility and early airmail planes.

In May of 1927, Charles A. Lindbergh captured the country's attention with his solo flight across the Atlantic. A few months later, on Sept. 3, Lindbergh visited Salt Lake City. "Entire city goes wild in cheering as plane comes," reported the Deseret News. "Falling with a driving engine, Col. Charles Lindbergh passed westward over the 35,000 people gathered at Woodward field, at terrific speed. Those who thought the conqueror of the Atlantic was headed for the Pacific Ocean, however, were soon set at rights. The wheels of the Spirit of St. Louis touched the ground at Woodward field at 2 o'clock to the second."

Bill Winther was among those in the crowd that day, and he took pictures of the famous aviator and his plane.

Winther also found ample photo fodder in the many automobiles that drove on Salt Lake streets. The first automobiles had come to town in the early 1900s. Several decades later, going faster, farther and in style was all the rage.

This was the age of "planned obsolescence" of the automobile, when manufacturers began introducing new models and stylish upgrades every few years to tempt buyers who wanted the latest thing.

Winther recorded them all. He took pictures of an early "horseless carriage" proudly proclaiming its 43-year age, as well as sleek new models. However, driving was not without its hazards even in those days. One of Winther's pictures details an early auto accident, a car tipped sadly on its side, as onlookers gather.

It creates a remarkable window in time, says Mead, who is hoping to get his project wrapped up by year's end. "Bill would have celebrated his 100th birthday this year, and I feel this would be an appropriate way of expressing the thanks of all of us who sincerely appreciate his efforts to photograph the people and events that have brought back to us such pleasant memories."


E-mail: carma@desnews.com