In the basement of the Little Red Schoolhouse in Old Town Scottsdale, Bob Fowler delicately slides out an old photograph from its plastic sheathing.
The black-and-white photo shows a dozen or so couples dancing inside a barn; the women are wearing poodle skirts, the men bolo ties or colonel ties, and hats are hung on wooden beams.
This is just one of hundreds of photographs Fowler has left to scan into the Scottsdale Historical Society’s digital archive.
“I’ve scanned about 1,600 in the time that I’ve been doing it, and I would say that, in our files, we have another 700, 800,” Fowler said.
“That’s still enough to keep me out of mischief,” he added with a smirk.
The northern Scottsdale resident celebrates his 10th year as a Scottsdale Historical Society (SHS) volunteer.
He initially volunteered to be a docent at the Little Red Schoolhouse and eventually became SHS’ designated digital archivist. He’s also on SHS’ board of directors.
“It’s helping to fulfill the mission of the society, as far as preserving and presenting history,” Fowler said of what he enjoys about being SHS’ digital archivist.
“That’s really satisfying that we’ve provided the public with an opportunity to see the photographs because they’re usually just in a file cabinet, and we don’t normally have people go in and look at them person,” he added.
A four-drawer filing cabinet in the Little Red Schoolhouse basement is nearly full of old photographs donated by the public as far back as 1984.
The photographs themselves, however, date even further back.
And while a majority of the photos are donated by Scottsdale residents, many come from families out of state.
“We just had a woman from Pennsylvania come,” Fowler said. “Her brother actually called me a couple of months ago, and she was going to be in Scottsdale.”
The donor’s father was manager of ABC Ranch from 1948 to 1954. The ABC Ranch and Polo Club was one of the late Jerry Wendell Mitchell’s several ranches; he also owned Rawhide, Krazy Horse Ranch and Polo Club, and Wranglers Roost Dude Ranch.
“I had not heard about the ABC Ranch, and I didn’t know anything about it,” Fowler said. “So, she lent us some of the pictures she had of her parents in 1948, and she actually brought some scrapbooks.”
Fowler comes into the Little Red Schoolhouse about once a week to scan.
Once scanned in the highest possible file quality setting, the photos are categorized into one of about 40 categories, like “Downtown Scottsdale” or “historic buildings before 1950.”
“I scan to a fairly high level, that way when we put it in the library website, if somebody wants to make a copy, they can,” Fowler said. “We’ve had a number of restaurants and businesses put up historical photographs, from Village Tavern and Denny’s to Wells Fargo and, I think, some Albertsons.”
Fowler said SHS met with the Scottsdale Public Library in 2011 to discuss the idea of hosting the photos in SHS’ digital archive on the library’s digital collection on its website as well.
He’s been sharing SHS’ photographs since.
“What I do is I usually collect 50, 60, 70 [photos], put them on DVDs, and then I go to the library,” he explained.
Each donated photo comes with a document called an accession form that lists the date the photo was donated to SHS, the donor’s name and contact information, and a description of the photo, including — if Fowler’s lucky — the names of the people pictured.
“For each photograph, I try to tell a story of the people in the photograph. I try to put down the names and that kind of stuff. I’m not just throwing a photograph up there; I’m trying to give some information that people can use,” he said.
He’s also found himself connecting pieces of Scottsdale history.
For example, an accession form that was submitted to SHS in July 1992 read, “1 5x7 black and white glossy photo of the Stevenson family (Christmas 1944?).”
According to the handwritten description of the photo, the picture showed a “small building with a frame for swings,” and, in the background, “a house with a large tree.”
Turns out, the house was the Titus House, one of the oldest houses in Scottsdale located near McDowell and Hayden roads and built in 1892.
“The Stevenson family used to work in the Titus House, and there’s a picnic behind that Titus House,” Fowler said. “This is one I hadn’t seen before.”
Fowler chooses the photos he scans based on what he finds – and what he thinks others will find – interesting.
“Sometimes, we might have pictures of families that have 20 pictures, and the question is, how many of those pictures, at least immediately, do you want to scan. That’s kind of a challenge,” he said.
Fowler’s not only interested in Scottsdale’s history – which he calls “short, but fast” — but also European history.
“For a while, I was working for a French computer company, and I went on a lot of trips to Paris,” Fowler said, adding that that’s when he got interested in learning all about World War I.
“Over the years, I actually started in the battlefield sites of Verdun and then went across that part of Western Europe,” Fowler added.
But Fowler doesn’t light up quite the same way than while discussing Scottsdale’s history.
“There’s a lot of aerial photos of Scottsdale over the years that I like,” he said. “There’s one we have actually on display that is Scottsdale in 1936. You can see it as this kind of a dusty old farming town in the downtown area.”
While SHS is always in need of volunteers, Fowler said he prefers being a team of one “because I have a little more control over the information and how we do it.”
What Fowler does welcome, though, are more donated photographs.
“Most of the photographs came in the '80s and '90s,” he said. “Two or three times a year, maybe, we get photographs. It’s really slowed down from where it used to be.”
“Maybe people don’t think of us as far as donating the photographs to,” Fowler added.