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Looking Back: Houston history lives on at Bonanzaville

David Houston's son, Davy Jr., shovels snow outside their rural Hunter home, circa 1902-1905. This photograph, which shows the family's grain elevator along the Great Northern Railway in the background, was most likely taken by Mr. Houston using one of his various camera inventions.

Working at the Cass County Historical Society, I have seen first hand the way photography has changed in only a short amount of time. When I first started six years ago, rolls of film were sold in the museum's gift shop as a majority of people took photographs while visiting the museum. Eventually, digital cameras became more common, and within the last year or so, many visitors can now be seen pulling out their phone to take a quick snapshot to post on Facebook. The transformation away from film makes me think about a Cass County homesteader and bonanza farmer whose invention of the roll-film camera over a century ago changed the way people documented their lives.

Born in Scotland in 1841, David Houston immigrated to the United States with his parents and settled in Wisconsin where his father operated a farm and worked as a building contractor. By the time David came to Dakota Territory in 1879, he was already very mechanically inclined and had an eye for quality soil. He homesteaded two miles south of the town of Hunter in Cass County where he constructed a small, two-room house that was eventually destroyed by a tornado. Houston quickly established himself as a successful bonanza farmer and rebuilt a much larger house with a storm shelter that doubled as a photographic dark room and workshop for his inventions.

In 1881, David Houston patented a design for the roll-film camera which enabled a photographer to take multiple images without reloading the camera. Previously, photographers used glass plates covered with emulsion chemicals as negatives. Houston's invention made photography more mobile and allowed common people, without much technical skill, to take quality photographs. The only problem with his invention was that no one had invented a practical method for creating film on a roll. Despite this, Houston sold his design which was eventually transferred to the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company, later known as the Eastman Kodak Company, who successfully produced film several years later.

Houston patented many inventions over the next two decades, including twenty-one patents for cameras and camera parts. However, Houston never received credit for many of his inventions. Numerous lawsuits were filed between Houston and the Eastman Company regarding the roll-film camera design and the Kodak name.

David Houston might have created many more useful inventions but tragically, he was caught in a blizzard in 1906 while walking home from Hunter and became disoriented. He spent several hours in the storm before finding shelter and never fully recovered, dying three months later. His wife and only child eventually sold the farm and moved to Florida. The large, mansion-style house remained near Hunter until it was restored and moved to Bonanzaville in 1971 for visitors to photograph, digitally or otherwise, and to learn more about the man who helped bring photography into the hands of the common person.