Nebraska merchant and photographer Emanuel Wolfe (1858-1933) used a camera to record images of his changing life in a diary of photographs. Over the course of twenty-five years, he accumulated more than two thousand glass plate negatives, most depicting scenes in his hometown of Neligh.
Wolfe was born to German parents in New York City on July 28, 1858. His childhood and early adult years are unknown. At the age of twenty-six he and a brother moved to Illinois and then to Neligh, Nebraska, where they established a store. The business was successful and Wolfe settled into the town, invested in real estate, and married in 1898. Branches of the store were operated for a time in Elgin and Oakdale.
From 1900 to 1920 Wolfe’s family grew up, his business expanded, and he photographed a multitude of subjects. As depression came to Nebraska agriculture in the 1920s, the business of Wolfe and Brother store declined. However, during earlier years he had both the money and energy to engage in photography as a hobby. When he built a new home in Neligh in 1917, he included a darkroom.
Wolfe used a large-format camera with a six-by-nine-inch view which would give him professional results. He produced an assortment of photographs of family members, the changing Neligh business district, the Wolfe and Brother store, agriculture, and house portraits. One of his best-known photos depicts a Ku Klux Klan parade in Neligh in the 1920s. Another interesting view is of the interior of the store about 1910, which includes a wire rack of postcard images of Neligh made by Wolfe. These images reflect both Wolfe’s photographic and commercial importance to the town.
The pictures as a whole provide a look at small-town Nebraska life during the early twentieth century. The entire collection is preserved at the Nebraska State Historical Society.