In this oral history, Bob Becker tells the story of Richard Herman Rothe, a horticulturalist-landscaper and professional photographer. Born in Prussia in the late 1800s, Rothe emigrated to the United States in 1893 and settled in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. He moved his family to Maine in 1906, where he managed the Mount Desert Nursery in Northeast Harbor until 1912. In these photographs, he is pictured with his wife, Martha Rothe, daughters Gretchen and Hilde, and neighbors on Mount Desert Island. Richard Rothe’s diaries are kept at the University of Pennsylvania libraries.

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Oral History:

 

Oral History Transcript:

ES: This is Eloise Schultz for the History Harvest, here with Bob Becker, Marlene Becker, and Amy Becker on June 27th, 2019. To start out, I’m wondering if you could tell us a little bit about what you’ve brought in for us today?

BB: Through the family, we came into possession of a couple photo albums that were of early photographs that my great-grandfather, Richard Herman Rothe, took. He was a professional photographer as well as a horticulturist-landscaper, especially in rock gardens. He actually was a photographer for Better Homes and Gardens, from what I understand, back in the early days. It’s photographs that he took personally, in Northeast Harbor, Maine, back in 1906 to 1912. The majority of the photographic content is of the area, the waterways and islands and beautiful surroundings of Northeast Harbor. And a lot of them include himself, his spouse Martha Rothe, his oldest daughter, Gretchen Rothe, and my grandmother, Hildegard Rothe. In seeing them, we wanted to come up here and talk to people in the area with a depth of knowledge, and who would be able to share them with other people. 

ES: And from looking at the photographs, what are some of the things that you think your family would have done in their time here?

BB: It looks to us that they were very into being outdoors. There’s photographs from the wintertime of being on a horse-drawn sleigh on the ice. The kids, out in the wilderness—at that time, I’m sure was a wilderness—and just some of the very recognizable landscape and such, which has led us to identify some of the places where the pictures were taken. 

ES: And was [Richard] Rothe a horticulturist by trade?

BB: Yes, some of the articles that we’ve uncovered over the years—horticulturalists’ encyclopedias and such—he’s been published in there. We’ve found articles that he’s written for horticultural magazines and such down in the Philadelphia-Pennsylvania area. He was very influential in his later years, with the Pennsylvania and Philadelphia horticultural society. After he left here, he had a vast nursery down in Glenside, PA, until his passing. I don’t know what year that was.

ES: And what can you tell us about his daughters?

BB: Great-aunt Gretchen had no children—I didn’t really know her that well, she passed when I was young. But my grandmother [Hildegard] was just a sweetheart. She was very down-to-earth, very loving, very caring, and a generally good person. She was born in 1900 and passed in the later 1980s, maybe 1988. 

ES: Do you know how the family might have made their way to Mount Desert Island?

BB: I do not know the mode of transportation, or why they came north into the Bar Harbor area. But they did transition from the Philadelphia-Pennsylvania area from the 1906-1912 timeframe. And whether it was because he was offered a position to manage the Mt. Desert Nursery, or friends up here, I’m not sure.

ES: Can you tell us a little bit about how the album came to be in your possession?

BB: It was in the possession of my grandmother, Hilde, until her passing. Then, it became in the possession of my uncle, Ernest Becker, and my father Robert Becker. And, subsequently, my father Robert—as they divided up possession—took custody of the photo albums, and passed it down to my family.

ES: I noticed in some of the photos that we were looking at that there are family gatherings, and one of all the children together?

BB: I believe they’re more friends than family. You know, there was just the two daughters. They used to entertain, especially in PA, the Philadelphia-Pennsylvania Horticultural Society would have parties out in their gardens and such. I would assume that similar gatherings took place up here.

ES: Do you have any memories of being told stories about events that might have been documented here?

BB: My grandmother, Hilde, had terrifically fond memories of her time out here. She loved it very much and was always proud of her years spent up in the Northeast Harbor and Bar Harbor area. 

TG: So, they were here at a time when Maine probably had its highest rate of immigration, in terms of its population. Do you know about [Rothe’s] time in Germany and why he emigrated here?

BB: Unfortunately I do not, but that’s some of the research we’re trying to do right now, to get a better understanding of his past and previous family members on that side. We’re very into trying to recreate that family tree.

TG: Do you know the family’s religious persuasion?

BB: I do not. I do know that my grandmother said she was born in Leipzig. But she was an infant when the immigrated over here.

ES: And you mentioned that some of the photos were taken on glass plates, and they were colorized—can you tell us about that?

BB: As I’m told, through my grandmother Hilde, my great-grandfather would go out to the nursery and pick the petals from the flowers, use a mortar and pestle, and stain the glass negatives to get the color of the actual plant at that time. So that’s—he’s had some fails, there are some pictures there that didn’t come out right—but a lot of them capture that really light pastel color of the flowers in that time. They came out quite nice, I believe.

ES: If those are the glass plates that you scanned in the binder, they maintained amazingly well.

BB: We’re very surprised at the quality of the photos over the years. Some of them go back a hundred and ten, a hundred and fifteen years—the skill he had as a photographer!