Guest Writer Chris Armstrong
Discovery Park of America’s cafe has rebranded, and the new attire honors local photography legends who captured some of the most entrancing images of Union City, Tenn. and Reelfoot Lake life in the 1920s. Created by Verne and Nonie Sabin, the collection of photos has been praised throughout the country for its ability to create a window through which we can experience the lives of those living in the Reelfoot Lake region during that time.
Verne and Nonie Sabin illuminated the wild beauty of Reelfoot Lake, and a century later their photographs remain some of the most captivating displays ever produced of this area. While the couple’s photography business flourished in Union City from 1919 to 1924, the two had their first encounter years earlier at the Illinois College of Photography in 1913. Verne Sabin and Nonie Rhoads fell in love while attending the university, and despite Nonie moving with her family to Union City, the two kept in contact through letters. Nonie, an early female entrepreneur, opened the “Cottage Studio” in town, while Verne continued to practice photography in Illinois until he joined the U.S. Army in 1918 and was stationed as a photographer at Newport News, Virginia. Fate would bring the two together again when Nonie was assigned to travel to Newport News while working for the government.
Verne and Nonie returned to Union City together in 1919 and were married within a week of their arrival. That same year, the Sabins began offering a variety of photography services to the community. Included were 24-hour film processing, movie production, commercial photos, portraits, filming and photographing special events with a panorama camera; the couple quickly built a large local clientele with their tremendous versatility. Their work was praised for capturing the natural allure of the Reelfoot Lake, and many of their photographs displayed residents whose lifestyles had become intertwined with the landmark.
In 1923, the couple offered a 300-photograph series of Reelfoot Lake to the state of Tennessee for $35. Although the letter written by Verne Sabin to Governor Austin Peay can be found in the papers of the governor, no response to Sabin has been found or recorded. Despite the offer being ignored or rejected, the photographs provided a vivid illustration of how passionate the residents of Reelfoot Lake were about its preservation to the state representatives. The Sabins’ photographs presented stunning sunsets amongst the cypress trees, determined fisherman proudly displaying their most recent reels and the unbelievable variety of vegetation.
Only a few years after Verne and Nonie’s offer, with rising demand from lake residents, the state government took its first step in preserving what is now considered Reelfoot Lake State Park by purchasing 280 acres of surrounding land. The couple left the lake behind in 1924 for new opportunities in Texas, and the Sabins’ continued their photography business there until 1935. In 1964, Nonie and Verne Sabin made their final visit to the lake that had marked the origin of their photography business and new lives together. Nonie Sabin died in 1971, and her husband, Verne, in 1976.
In 1986, many of the Sabins’ photographs were displayed in an exhibit produced by the Obion County-Union City Museum. Two visitors to the exhibit who worked for the Tennessee State Library and Archives believed that the photographs were worth preserving and found Mrs. Lela Karweil, the Sabins’daughter who then owned their collection, and Dr. Wintred Smith, a professor at the University of Tennessee at Martin who had coordinated the display. They encouraged Karweil to donate her parents’ collection to the state library, and between 1989 and 1990 the Tennessee State Library and Archives received dozens of boxes containing the Sabins’ life work.
The collection was microfilmed, and the original works were placed in a climate-controlled vault for preservation, with prints eventually being provided to a variety of educational programs and facilities. Sadly, some of the photographs that were offered for sale in 1923 were either never found or had been damaged beyond usability after suffering numerous moves in Texas before returning to Tennessee. The Obion County Museum merged with Discovery Park of America, and with the merger came the Sabin’s photographs, some of which have been on display in the Reelfoot Room at the museum. With the addition of those that will now be displayed in Sabin’s café, their work will be enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of DPA visitors from around the world. A small book with more images is available for sale in the museum gift shop.