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The Rural Route

In Scales Mound, globe-trotting photographer Archie Lieberman found a new home and a lifelong subject.



Archie Lieberman was 27 years old, eager to make a name for himself as a photographer, when he first went to Scales Mound, a small farming town in western Illinois near Galena. That was in 1954. A national magazine had sent him there to photograph a local teenager named Janet Hammer, who'd won a sewing contest. It didn't exactly sound like the sexiest assignment, but it was an assignment.

"I came out there in January, one winter day," Lieberman recalls. "This kid was gonna meet me outside of Scales Mound on a road called Hammer Road and take me to his father's farm. It was Bill Hammer Jr., and he was, what, I don't know, 13 years old back then. There was something so wonderful about him, something so American--as I was taught how Americans looked. I ate their food, and I liked it. And they were cordial. I was invited back, and I came back."

Lieberman went on to become a successful photojournalist, featured in magazines such as Life, Look, Collier's, and Time. He won numerous awards and had his photos displayed in many museums, including the Art Institute and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But he never stopped going to Scales Mound. Over the years he's spent countless hours shooting photos of the Hammers, their friends, and their community--a massive collection that's now archived at the University of Dubuque. "I once asked the Hammers, 'How come you let me into your life?' They said, 'It was your work. We didn't want to prevent you from earning a living.' That's how generous they were."

Lieberman used the photos to fill two books. The first, Farm Boy, is devoted to photos of Bill Hammer Jr. The second, Neighbors, is described by its subtitle: "A Forty-Year Portrait of an American Farm Community." Both books are out of print, which is a shame, since they display Lieberman's gift for capturing enduring emotions even in ordinary settings, such as barbershops or churches.

On the surface, Lieberman seems so different from the farmers of Scales Mound. He was raised in Albany Park in the 30s and 40s, when it was still largely a working-class Jewish neighborhood. His father, Saul, ran a barbershop on Lawrence Avenue, and the family lived in an apartment at Hamlin and Sunnyside. He graduated from Roosevelt High School, went into the marines, and studied photography under Vories Fisher at the Art Institute.

"I've been all over the world making photographs," he says. "I rarely turned an assignment down. Well, maybe once. The Red Cross wanted to send me to Korea to make photographs during the war. My wife didn't want me to go. I said, 'But I can make a name for myself.' And she said, 'Yeah, on a tombstone.' Sure, I hustled. You have to hustle. I only have one shot at life--I didn't want to screw it up."

He goes on, "I'll tell you a story. Back in 1967 I was on assignment in Venezuela. I'd been down there on a three-month tour for Holiday magazine. My best friend, a photographer named Paul Schutzer, was also down there. We were supposed to meet in Caracas. Then I read in the paper that a war was rumbling in the Middle East. I thought to myself, 'I bet Paul's going over there.' Sure enough, he went off to Israel, and we never did get together in Caracas. Well, I went back to New York with my stuff. And I got my own assignment from Look to go to Israel. On my way to the airport the radio blared that Paul Schutzer, Life photographer, had died. He knew one of the Israeli generals, the guy with the patch, Moshe Dayan. And he had gone to Dayan and said, 'I've got to go to the action.' So he was there when they were attacking the Gaza, and he was hit and killed.

"I did go to Israel. I went with [magazine writer] Jack Starr. We did some great work. We did a story called 'The number-seven bus' and a story about a new Christmas in the land of Christ. But you know, afterwards I was so saddened by all of this that I was glad to come back to the Hammers' farm, where everything made sense. The brooks gurgle. The cows moo. The rooster crows. The sun comes up, and when it goes down you know you've lived another day."

In 1973 he and his wife, Esther, bought a farmhouse seven miles outside of Scales Mound. In 1983, after their three sons were grown, they moved there permanently. "We had been living in Evanston," he says. "That's where we raised our three sons. We had a nice house--a big, redbrick Georgian at Asbury and Crain. But I don't miss Evanston. There's something comforting about a small town that you can't get around [Chicago]."

He says he's not making pictures anymore, though he still teaches photography at the University of Dubuque and at Knox College. "I spend most of my time at the farm. I don't come to Chicago as much as I used to. The traffic's a mess--it takes forever."

Every topic seems to remind him of pictures he's shot. "How many photos have you taken?" I ask.

"You mean, how many have I made? I made photographs. I don't take them. There's a difference. I don't use the word 'take.' I also don't use the word 'create.' I don't create. I invent. 'Create' is too powerful a word."

The opening line of Neighbors reads: "There is a serenity now in a place I know like no other. It is around Scales Mound in the deeply etched panorama of Jo Daviess County, in the northwest corner of Illinois, where the land is crayon green in the spring and fleece white in the winter and stays that way until the thaw."

Page 55 shows three generations of the Hammer family--grandparents, son and daughter-in-law, and grandchildren--eating dinner. "All the adults in this picture are dead, except for the young woman," says Lieberman. "So many of the people I met in Scales Mound--good people--are dead."

Pages 154 and 155 show four photographs of Bill Hammer Jr., from ages 14 to 44. He's transformed from a strapping boy into a slouched and paunchy middle-aged man who looks far older than he is. "Bill died young--at age 49," says Lieberman. "He had heart problems. He worked his farm almost to the day he died. I saw him near the end, and I said, 'How ya doin', Bill?' He said, 'Archie, if I got off this tractor, I couldn't walk to you without gasping for breath.'"

There are also photos of farmers on tractors and farmers' wives sewing quilts and a shot of Curly and Marie Eversoll as they sat in church on their 50th wedding anniversary. On the next page is a picture of Curly, well into his 70s, trying on the hat he wore the day he and Marie were married. "I think Curly loved that picture," says Lieberman. "He has the book in the convalescent center. He tells the other residents, 'Wanna see my centerfold?'"

Lieberman says matter-of-factly, "It was a groundbreaking book. Nobody ever did that before--to attach oneself to a community and keep it up for 40 years, while doing other things at the same time. It got so they didn't even notice me anymore. A camera would go off, and they'd say, 'Oh, that's Archie.'"

There's a picture of Bill Hammer Jr. and his wife, Dorothy, with their newborn son, Jim. "I remember when I made this picture," says Lieberman. "They were just back from the hospital, and everyone's gone. Dorothy said to Bill, 'This is the first time we've had to be alone with him since he was born.' And I was right there. That kind of intimacy comes from spending a lot of time with people. I insinuated myself into their lives, but they also insinuated their lives into mine. I became more like them. I talk slower.

"The town's changed, you know. It's not like it used to be when I first showed up. I remember they used to have a farm line. You'd dial your number, and an operator would come on the line. Lolly was her name. I'd say, 'Can you get me Bill Hammer?' And she'd say, 'Is that you, Archie?' 'Yes.' 'Oh, I think Bill's in the fields. I'll tell him you called.'

"There are no more farm-line operators anymore. No, time has passed. Things change. The remnants are still there. But for the most part, it's not as rural as it used to be. I'm glad I helped preserve it."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Archie Lieberman.

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