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How Vermont's 'snowflake man' created the first-ever images of fleeting snow crystals

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Images of snowflakes, captured by Wilson Bentley. (Courtesy Jericho Historical Society)
Images of snowflakes, captured by Wilson Bentley. (Courtesy Jericho Historical Society)

It's safe to say we New Englanders have a love-hate relationship with snow. A winter storm's freshly-falling beauty can inspire childlike wonder — until we have to dig out our cars and shovel the sidewalks.

But for Wilson "Snowflake" Bentley, a self-taught, 19th-century photographer, snow drove a deep fascination that forged a lasting legacy.

The Vermont farmer is credited with creating the world's first clear images of snow crystals. He was born in the perfect place: Jericho, about 12 miles east of Burlington. The town is in the heart of the state's snowbelt and gets 100-plus inches of white stuff each winter.

Wilson Bentley's great-grandniece Susan Richardson. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
Wilson Bentley's great-grandniece Sue Richardson. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

“This was the time of year that he loved more than anything,” Bentley's great-grandniece, Sue Richardson, said as she crunched along a path near the center of this one-stoplight town. “While the rest of the farmers were cursing it and saying, 'Oh, I can't wait for summer,' Willie was in his glory.”

Richardson — a seventh-generation Bentley — is caretaker of her great-granduncle's legacy. She said he lived on the family's dairy farm where, for over four decades, he captured more than 5,000 unique snow crystals.

“Even today, if you see a photograph of a snow crystal, there's a pretty good probability it's one of his,” Richardson said. “And he's the one that taught us that no two snow crystals — or no two snowflakes, as they use the term — are alike.”

Technically snowflakes are clusters of tiny snow crystals, which are those icy specks we catch on our coat sleeves. To honor her heritage, Richardson has a few of her uncle's hexagonal images tattooed on her forearm. She also eagerly shares Bentley's story through the Jericho's historical society and a permanent exhibit at the Old Red Mill.

Bentley's quest to immortalize snow's ephemeral beauty began after his mother, a school teacher, gave him a microscope. Richardson said as a young teen he looked at everything through it, from blades of grass to insects.

When winter arrived, and Bentley first saw a magnified crystal beneath his microscope's lens, he was hooked. Initially, he tried sketching them. Then he asked for a camera. Bentley's mother convinced his father to use a $100 inheritance from her side of the family to buy one for their son's 17th birthday in 1882.

“At that time land was selling for about $3 an acre — and this camera was $100,” Richardson explained. “That was a huge amount of money to a farmer in Vermont.”

The primitive-looking device is something to behold. It's part bellows camera, part microscope, and 100% Yankee ingenuity. Bentley jerry-rigged other clever innovations onto the bulky unit that helped him work swiftly in a storm. He set it up inside an unheated woodshed. When it started to snow, he'd catch falling crystals on a tray. If Bentley saw one he liked, he'd use a thin broom straw to move it to an observation microscope. Then, Richardson said, if the snow crystal met Bentley's specifications he'd lightly press a turkey feather on top of the fragile form while he transferred its slide to the camera. Her ancestor did all of this while wearing big mittens, hoping for enough light, and holding his breath before the delicate gems melted away.

Wilson Bentley with his microscope. (Courtesy Jericho Historical Society)
Wilson Bentley with his microscope. (Courtesy Jericho Historical Society)

“It was just trial and error. Today, we'd Google it and have our answer in 20 seconds,” Richardson said. “Not so much so in the 1880s.”

On Jan. 18, 1885, Bentley's patience and steady hand finally paid off. He later wrote:

“The day that I developed the first negative made by this method and found it good, I felt almost like falling on my knees beside that apparatus and worshiping it! I knew then that what I had dreamed of doing, was possible. It was the greatest moment of my life.”

Richardson said Bentley set out to share his snow crystals, along with his growing knowledge about them, with the world. He kept detailed records on the different temperatures and cloud conditions that created their shapes. That data fueled articles Bentley wrote for magazines and periodicals. Colleges purchased his images for use in their classrooms and he came to be known as "the Snowflake Man.”

Wilson Bentley with his camera. (Courtesy Jericho Historical Society)
Wilson Bentley with his camera. (Courtesy Jericho Historical Society)

“Tiffany's — the Little Blue Box, the famed New York jeweler — bought a set of his prints to use for jewelry design,” Richardson added. “It was extraordinary how many people learned about his work in that time period.”

While his mother always supported his dreams, the other farmers in Jericho — and even Bentley's father — thought he was wasting his time. For about two decades, the scientific community ignored his poetic writings, which Richardson said frustrated her humble uncle. Here's a line from one of his writings:

“The snow crystals … come to us not only to reveal the wondrous beauty of the minute in Nature, but to teach us that all earthly beauty is transient and must soon fade away.”

But eventually, the meteorological community came around to recognizing Bentley in his day, and contemporary weather professionals still appreciate his contributions, including Mark Breen. “The way that he described his snow crystals was so eloquent, and yet scientific,” he said, “he made that so rich.”

Breen is senior meteorologist at the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium in St. Johnsbury and host of the 30-year-old Vermont Public Radio report “Eye on the Sky.”

The museum holds some of Bentley's images — with his accompanying notes — in its collection. Breen has read those, along with Bentley's articles he wrote as a member of the American Meteorological Society. This modern weather man marvels at the self-educated pioneer's eye-popping microphotographs and prescient observations.

“Let's face it, he was working way over 100 years ago,” Breen said, “and the quality of his work, and the things that he did, still stand up today.”

Wilson Bentley's photographs of snow crystals. (Courtesy Jericho Historical Society)
Wilson Bentley's photographs of snow crystals. (Courtesy Jericho Historical Society)

Being recognized for his life's work was rewarding to Bentley, according to Sue Richardson. In 1931 another of his dreams came true: the publication of a book containing 2,000 of his best snow crystal images. But, just a few weeks later, Snowflake Bentley's passion would lead to his demise.

“He had traveled into Burlington,” Richardson explained, “it had been a year where we'd had no snow.” Then, while her uncle was riding back on the train, he saw flakes falling. Excited and determined to get back to his camera, Bentley walked six miles home from the station in what turned into a blizzard and caught pneumonia. “And on Dec. 23, 1931, he passed away,” Richardson said, “not having photographed a single snow crystal that winter.”

It's gratifying for her that 90 years after his death people still travel long distances to see Bentley's microscope, camera, and lots of iconic snow crystal images in the Jericho Historical Society's permanent exhibition. Some tell her they've read the children's book about him called "Snowflake Bentley," and Richardson gets calls from schools around the country.

“I think there's just something about him that sparks an aha moment,” she said. “And people just go, 'wow!' ”

Richardson is the last Bentley descendent in town, and she isn't sure who will carry the torch when she can't anymore. Now 65, she's proud of her great uncle, but admits her own feelings for snow are mixed.

With a laugh she said, “When it's snowing really hard sometimes I'll just look to the heavens and say, 'Sorry, Uncle Willie, but I wish this would stop!' ”

Bentley is buried in his hometown's cemetery with a simple gravestone that reads, “Wilson Snowflake Man.”

This segment aired on February 25, 2022.

Related:

Andrea Shea Twitter Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.

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