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Keeping Evansville's past in focus

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Jason Smathers
July 18, 2010
— Thanks to Ruth Ann Montgomery, Evansville residents should know practically everything they ever wanted to know about their hometown.

The local historian, who spends her daytime working for Arrowhead Library Systems in Janesville, has gone to painstaking efforts to preserve documents, pictures and ornamentation that tell the history of Evansville, from its settlement in 1839 to today.


But when Montgomery released "Images of America: Evansville", a book of historical photos from the 19th and early 20th century, some viewed the pictures with a question: Where was that and what is it now?


"Evansville: Then & Now," which is being released Monday by Arcadia Publishing, seeks to answer those questions.


Montgomery compiled most photos from her own collections to create a comprehensive view of Main Street, Madison Street and other notable spots from the late 19th to mid 20th century. She enlisted the help of Evansville native and freelance photographer John Ehle to take each photo of the location from the exact angle it was taken in the older photos.


"We did some together, and that was the most fun because we got to compare notes about what we knew about the various families that lived in some of these old homes," Ehle said. "And that kind of brought it to life to me."


Montgomery noted some dramatic changes in the landscape. For example the old Evansville bank, which originally stood with an onion-shaped roof, is completely unrecognizable from the brown granite Union Bank and Trust Company building that sits there today.


Montgomery's latest book helps put the cap on her research of nearly two centuries of local history. She has previously written books on St. Paul's Catholic Church for its 100th anniversary, the history of Evansville from its settlement to 1920 and the aforementioned "Images of America" volume. On top of that, she also created and manages a website dedicated to the city's history.


Yet, despite her compendium of Evansville's architectural, familial and social history, Montgomery still finds new pieces of the puzzle. A few days ago, a friend told her about a photograph on Ancestry.com of an old ice cream shop in Evansvilleóbut with a different owner than she knew about. After a search of city directories, she placed the shop at where the Eager building is now.


She contacted the family with the photo to let them know where it was located. And that's what she loves about her role as defacto town historian: Linking people to their own history.


"There have been families that were very prominent in the 1800s and today there are no living ancestors in the community," Montgomery said. "Every once in awhile I will get an e-mail from someone looking for their family history. It's really interesting for me to connect people to information they didn't have about their ancestors."


Ehle said the pair might have another offering in the works, which would focus on changes to agriculture around the area.



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