Ross Kelbaugh came of age during centennial commemorations of the Civil War. Inspired by popular media and neighborhood kids who collected coins and stamps, Kelbaugh began a journey that continues today. Along the way, his professional life as a schoolteacher, re-enactor of Civil War music, and connections to his native Maryland, heightened his interest in historic images. It also motivated him to author numerous books and engage in television work. MI Editor and Publisher Ronald S. Coddington interviewed Kelbaugh to learn more about his lifetime of collecting and related pursuits.
Q: What inspired you to start collecting?
I guess I was just born with the collecting gene. My elementary school was a hotbed of coin and stamp collecting which started me on the adventure in the fourth grade. On the eve of the Civil War Centennial, Life magazine published a special six-part series about the war, and the art and period photographs ignited my imagination. One photo was of Norm Flayderman sporting a kepi, a sword and holding a revolver, who was dubbed America’s “Notable Civil War Collector” as he posed surrounded by weapons, flags and other artifacts. That was the moment I realized you could own the relics from that exciting era, and I was hooked with my new hero. I started to subscribe to Flayderman’s catalogue though I could afford little in it at the time, but I was still enthralled when a new issue arrived. Many years later I met Norm when The Maryland Arms Collectors Association honored him at our annual show, and I shared with him the impact that he had on my life. It brought tears to this tough old collector/dealer’s eyes.
Q: You coined the term “Centennial Generation” to describe collecting during the 100th anniversary of the Civil War. What are your impressions of those days?
Due to the growing influence of television, it was a great time to grow up. Disney’s Davy Crocket, Johnny Tremain, and Johnny Shiloh were just a few of the TV shows that laid the foundation for encouraging Boomers’ historical interest. The Civil War excited Americans, and re-enactments made it come alive. A flood of Civil War books was published and Civil War Times magazine (often with a great image from Herb Peck’s collection on the back cover) along with American Rifleman (with ads for buying real Civil War relics) were in my school library. Civil War collecting actually became a fad in my neighborhood. There were relics to fit any pocketbook from Minié balls to swords, rifles, leather accouterments and photographs.
I bought my first cavalry saber for $12 and an Enfield rifle for $20, and cartes de visite of Civil War soldiers were 50 cents. These I could afford with the money I earned from mowing lawns. Antique shops and shows, gun shops, gun shows and an explosion of dealers who put out mail order lists provided more prey while on the hunt. Most importantly, it was not politicized. The interests among those I met were about the battles, strategies, relics and the lives of Johnny Reb and Billy Yank. It was not about who was right or wrong. I attended re-enactments where there would be hundreds of Confederates and just a handful of Yankees. It was cool to be a rebel (like Nick Adams as Johnny Yuma in the TV series The Rebel ), and promoters sometimes had to beg Confederate re-enactors to switch sides to make battles more realistic. No one had to apologize for their interests.
Q: Tell us about the first image you acquired, and how you came to focus on early Baltimore, and Black people in America.
My first Civil War photograph was of a full-length unarmed Yankee cavalryman in uniform with shoulder scales. Not spectacular, but he was a Civil War soldier, and 50 cents was affordable for a 12-year-old. And it was probably priceless to the subject and his family, if not so much to modern collectors.
In 1971, I had an epiphany that collecting early photographs was the opportunity to build a major collection with only the modest income of a schoolteacher, since these were ignored by institutions, and only few were interested. So, I sold off my general Civil War collection and became focused on photography, collecting as a “Road Scholar” hitting the shops, shows, auctions and flea markets on a great American adventure. Knowledge and effort made it possible for me to compete with deep pocket speculators who started to be drawn to early photography.
A college mentor introduced me to Miller’s Photographic History of the Civil War along with daguerreotypes he collected. He particularly liked interesting portraits of men in top hats. I came across one with the intent of selling it to him, but I fell in love with it and joined the Knights of Daguerre. Later, at an antique show, we both spotted a dag of a top-hatted dude that we both coveted. His wife suggested we flip for it, and I won the toss. Later, when cleaning the cover glass, I noticed that the mat had been stamped “Marsters Balto.” I looked in Taft’s Photography and the American Scene and Newhall’s The Daguerreotype in America and there was no mention of a Marsters.
So, I began decades of research and the collecting adventure to uncover the history of photography in Maryland that had been totally ignored by academics and local institutions. That resulted in my book Directory of Maryland Photographers 1840-1900, the first to help in the interpretation of signed Maryland photographs. On my journey I encountered African American images as well with little competition since few were interested in them. I knew these were important and as history teacher with a diverse student population, I always included these as part of my learning activities on the history of photography so my minority students could see that they too were part of the American story. This has actually become one of my most important collections now numbering over 800 images, documents, prints, books, and objects that could not be duplicated today. It will eventually end up in institutions that are now competing to fill gaps in their collections that had been long ignored.
Q: I first became aware of you through your book Introduction to Civil War Photography, which proved a tremendously helpful resource during my early years of collecting. How did you come to write it? How did it shape the books that followed?
I recognized that with the increased interest in Civil War photographs, there was nothing available to serve as a guide for those interested in entering this collecting field and the teacher in me made me want to share what I had learned from over 20 years of experience. Dean Thomas of Thomas Publications had started his “Introduction to” series that focused on Civil War artifacts, and he agreed to publish it. It has gone through two editions and many re-printings, and is still in print. I did the initial layout illustrated with images mostly from my own collection.
Most of the books I have done since have been illustrated with my own collections. The same formula was used for my Introduction to African American Photographs, 1840-1950, which is out of print, but a new edition will soon be published. I want to avoid the visual redundancy of seeing the same photos from the Library of Congress and not pay for the rights to publish images from image houses and institutions. The one exception is my Maryland’s Civil War Photographs: The Sesquicentennial Collection. It includes images from the pioneer collections of the late Gil Barrett, Dave Mark, Fred Shroyer and Dan Toomey who saved what was ignored by local institutions. No matter how well you know Civil War photographs, you will see some in this book that you may never have seen before.
My recent publication Black Lives in Focus features selections from my African-American collection along with the stories about these people whose personhood have been added, along with some of my national treasures to the American memory. Other books about my diverse collections are now available such as Catographics: Vintage Cat Photographs, 1845-1920 and more are on the horizon.
Q: You were an educator by profession and used Civil War artifacts to teach students and engage them in the larger history of the country. Tell us more.
Most people like old stuff if you can present it in an engaging manner. As a teacher, I was partly in the edutainment business that used artifacts to capture the attention of students (a major challenge to start with), and then create activities with them to serve as a springboard for learning. For the Civil War unit, I used the letters of two brothers I had discovered at an antique show in the 1970s. They served in the Union Army, and you couldn’t make up a more compelling story. Students read transcriptions of the letters and I enclosed the originals in plexiglass so they could examine and analyze the originals. Then, I took them through the research process that uncovered the human tragedy this forgotten family suffered. This captured the attention of everyone from eighth graders to high schoolers to even the adults who observed my classes. (You can read their story in my Their All for Freedom on Amazon that I published as a memorial to these men.)
Eighth graders can still play pretend. After examining original letters, I had them write their own letter about being in the Civil War and make it look original. Then I put up a showcase at the school entrance a week before Memorial Day with 11 student letters and one original. I arranged them in a circle with the title “Can You Spot the Real Civil War Letter?” Each was numbered and I stated that the original would be revealed on Memorial Day. Many, including the principal, tried to get me to tell them the answer ahead of time, but I kept the guessing going all week. On Memorial Day I revealed the original in the middle labeled as “A Forgotten American Remembered.” To this day I meet students and faculty I worked with decades ago that still mention that exhibit.
Q: You are a collector and re-enacted as a musician. How do these feed off each other?
Fortunately, I was blessed with musical talent that enabled me to master several instruments. I had obtained an original Civil War fife in high school and while in college I hooked up with the First Maryland Regiment, a Revolutionary War living history group that included a fife and drum corps. This group’s emphasis was on authenticity for the upcoming Bicentennial in response to the inaccuracies of soldier impressions during the Centennial. Many in the group were also Civil War collectors and had been Civil War re-enactors, so we shared our common love for the artifacts as well as the music while doing both Rev War and Civil War presentations.
This association led to performing all over North America in public programs, parades, movies (we recorded the soundtrack and appeared in the movie Gettysburg), television and for two presidents. I even had my picture on U-Haul trailers! One of the most exciting was leading the Bicentennial Parade in Philadelphia on July 4, 1976, where literally a million people were there cheering for us. Our group still performs today, and I have been playing with some of these musicians since I was eighteen making us a true Band of Brothers.
Q: What is your take on how the Digital Age has transformed collecting?
The digital evolution has been a two-sided sword. Information is now increasingly available on the Internet replacing the miles of travel and hours of dealing with the challenges of institutional research. Pricing information is easily accessible, though there can still be some advantage for the collector with a keen eye in the aesthetic evaluation of photographs. The Internet has also broken down most of the walls of the regional advantages that once existed for collecting. A great image would turn up locally and might be affordably priced at a local show, flea market or auction house. Now it is more likely to end up online with deep-pocketed national competition. It takes much of the fun out of the hunt and thrill of discovery looking for what we used to call “the big one” during the years of the pre-Internet’s Golden Age of Collecting.
Q: What advice would you give to a young Ross Kelbaugh as he began his collecting journey?
I would tell him to trust his instincts, never stop learning, and continue the journey that his collecting passions led him, while ignoring jealous and ignorant critics. This includes some of the academic and curatorial experts who will never have seen, handled or owned as much as you. What’s really most important is that you are having fun, value the many friendships you make while on the journey and savor the adventure while it lasts.
Q: Do you have ancestral connections to the Civil War? If so, tell us about them.
Though I had family fight in the American Revolution and War of 1812, they escaped Civil War service. My father’s people were from northern Baltimore County in Maryland, not far from the Pennsylvania line. Stories were passed down about hearing the thunder of cannon from Gettysburg. They also told about warning the local farmers to hide their horses in the woods when the Union army appeared to confiscate their horses during the battle. My great-great-grandfather as a child supposedly stood by the railroad track yelling “Hurrah for Jeff Davis” as Union troops passed by on their way to the battle.
Q: What else should MI readers know about you?
I have been an on-air appraiser for “Chesapeake Collectibles” on Maryland Public Television for 10 seasons, and have had some amazing discoveries. I find passionate collectors to be the most interesting people to know. I always enjoy learning about collections, especially when it is a new field to me. I am still collecting and will step up to the plate for items with an important story. And I am looking to bring a Harriet Tubman photograph to Maryland.
Cover Origins: Brimfield and Herb Peck
When I decided to write Introduction to Civil War Photography I was already thinking about the design of the cover. I had seen other books that had used cased images of a typical Confederate and Yankee, but I wanted to better those by having contrasting images visually interesting to collectors to start with and have them posed in almost the exact the same manner—no easy task in the era before the internet when there was no “ImagesRUs” to download photographs to publish.
Earlier in the 1980s, I had had the luck of finding a great Confederate tintype that I had discovered at the famous flea markets held in Brimfield, Mass., three times a year. About 6 a.m. on what was already a warm and humid July morning, I hit the collecting trail on the hunt. In the front yard of one of the homes along the main street a dealer was already set up with tables topped with showcases featuring silverware. They were not my interest but after giving it all a quick glance I noticed a couple of closed sixth plate cases in the corner of one showcase.
I asked to see them and was stunned when I opened the first one. There was a seated man in uniform holding a Smith carbine and the very visible letters CSA on his rectangular belt plate! It momentarily took my breath away. The price was reasonable, and I bagged my prey that early morning with what was the best Johnny I had ever found in the wilds up to that time.
When I decided to do the book several years later, I knew that I wanted to use him on the cover. But now the challenge was to find a Yankee to match.
The Maryland Arms Collectors Association has held their Antique Arms Show in Baltimore since 1959. I began going to the shows in 1962 and have rarely missed one since. In addition to arms for sale, there are always images. When the shows opened, I’d head to the tables of collector extraordinaire and congenial gentleman Herb Peck. He set up in the same spot every year. He usually had one showcase with a “For Display Only” exhibit of incredible images from his renowned collection. Next to it was a sale showcase filled with treasures.
I was still in search of my cover Yankee while writing Introduction to Civil War Photography. At the show, I headed over to Herb’s tables. While chatting with him I glanced down at his sale grouping. Eureka! There was a sixth plate ambrotype of a seated Yankee holding an Enfield rifle with a revolver. A Sheffield dagger stuck in his waist belt with a VMM plate that, fortunately, had only been tinted with gold by the photographer around the edge so the letters were still clearly visible. And he was posed (though reversed) just like my rebel! I gladly purchased it.
Once more I had been blessed with the luck of finding an image for a project right when I needed it.
— Ross J. Kelbaugh
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