Preserving images of two Altenburgs ­– Missouri's and Germany's

Sunday, May 31, 2009

ALTENBURG, Mo. -- On May 8, a line of strong storms and heavy winds tore through Southeast Missouri. Some communities were spared entirely, while in others, trees were knocked down as if they were cheap scenery. Automobiles, walls and roofs were destroyed as dozens of pines, oaks and cedars lay on top of them.

One week before the storm, neurosurgeon/photographer Dr Joel West Ray took a series of pictures around Altenburg, a town that saw its share of the destruction. Ray's images capture small-town life in a village settled by Saxon Lutherans. Older residents who are descendents of those Saxons can, at times, still be heard speaking a hybrid of German and English.

"The one [photo] that started all of this was one that was taken through a window of the Lutheran Church," Ray said.

That photograph of an arrangement of houses, fences and streets viewed from a church inspired the "Images of East Perry County" exhibit now on display at Altenburg's Lutheran Heritage Center and Museum. In a twist of fate, the church and adjoining park were punished by the inclement weather.

The exhibit

Ray's exhibit, which runs until fall, is the first the leg of "From Altenburg, Missouri to Altenburg, Germany: The Photography Project," an information exchange of photographs, video conferencing and, eventually, real-life visits between the two towns. Proceeds from the sale of his prints will help fund the project.

"The great thing about Dr. Ray's pictures is that he captured landscapes that will never look the same again," said Carla Jordan, director of the Lutheran Heritage Center and Museum, operated by the Perry County Lutheran Historical Society

Ray, who works at Saint Francis Medical Center, said, "I have this attachment for that area. And recently I was asked to teach photography at the school there." Originally from San Diego, Ray has been in Cape Girardeau since August 1997. He has given lessons in photography at the Cape Girardeau Nature Conservation Center as well as Notre Dame Regional High School.

Among the other pictures in his exhibit are shots such as museum president Bob Schmidt on his farm with his tractor and some cows, and an aerial shot of Altenburg and Frohna, nestled in the rolling hills of Perry County.

The exhibit also includes a picture of the steeple atop the roof of the Trinity Lutheran Church; during the storm, the steeple was blown off and destroyed. A few days later, cranes hauled the remnants of the steeple away.

In 1839, several hundred Saxon Lutherans left their homes in Germany. Guided by pastor Martin Stephan, the group of 600 immigrants purchased more than 4,000 acres in Perry County with a communal fund of almost $10,000. They founded the communities of Altenburg, Nieder, Frohna, Dresden, Seelitz, Johannisberg and Wittenberg. Shortly thereafter, the Log College Seminary, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was built. Of the original settlements, only Altenburg and Frohna remain today.

'A Night at the Museum'

The Lutheran Heritage Center and Museum is a 4,000-square-foot exhibit hall that opened in 2005. It contains artifacts from the Saxons as well as other items from around the region.

On June 27 the center will hold a "Night at the Museum," a free showcase featuring photographs taken by the children involved in the project. The final leg of Missouri's part in the project will consist of Ray and Dr. Dieter Jeden from Southeast Missouri State University going to Altenburg, Germany, in the fall, where they will conduct the same photography workshops with German children

"I'm really looking forward to going over to Altenburg, Germany," Ray said. "That will be in October. I want to show them this … photojournalistic approach to our project. To compare and contrast the two towns who both share a very similar heritage."

"A lot was lost in Altenburg," Jordan said. "And I just think it's great that the doctor is helping heal the community with his photography, remembering things the way they used to be."

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