Rescued archive of police photos traces South Jersey town's history

A cache of 15,000 photographic negatives that nearly got tossed into the trash is offering Cinnaminson and its police department fresh pictures of a largely forgotten past.

Who knew that routine photos of fender-benders, burglaries, and men in blue on their beats during the late 1940s through the mid-1970s could illustrate the evolution of a once-rural South Jersey suburb?

Paul M. Seymour, who saved the black-and-white negatives and is making images from them, knew.

So did his fellow township police officer, Thomas Lillagore, 49. He utilized more than a dozen of the photos to finish a job his late father started.

"There was a definite 'aha' moment as I was going through the negatives," says Seymour, 47, who discovered images of long-gone landmarks - there once was a fountain at Fountain Farms - and an almost pastoral Route 130.

In 2014, the longtime photography buff volunteered to assess the contents of filing cabinets the department planned to throw away.

Folders inside contained oversize negatives, developed from film shot with Speed Graphic cameras - the kind that were once the gold standard for press photographers.

The negatives he has sorted, organized, and processed so far have yielded 400 deeply detailed images, many of which include glimpses of Cinnaminson "when it was an up-and-coming town," Seymour says.

"It is so neat to see that whole era."

Most of the photos show police officers, some of whom are long dead but still have family in town.

Lillagore's father, Thomas Sr., was a Cinnaminson detective when he launched an effort to honor retired colleagues with wall plaques at police headquarters.

The elder Lillagore died in 1999, and his son, also a detective, had hoped to complete the project.

"There weren't [usable] pictures of 10 to 15 of the guys," Lillagore says. "But Paul found photos of all of them, in their uniforms. It was like he found a treasure chest."

The result is a handsome lobby display of laser-etched plaques, each including a head shot, honoring the service of 40 retired officers. Lillagore finished installing it just three weeks ago.

Meanwhile, photos of giant cars with space-age fins, gas stations selling a gallon for 25.9 cents, and the Midcentury Modern interiors of ransacked ranch homes can be seen on the "Cinnaminson Time Machine" Facebook page or at paulseymourphotography.com.

"One of the greatest things for me has been the stories" the photos have generated, Seymour, who retired from the department last year, says from his Alexandria, Va., home.

Then there are stories the photos don't tell as well.

"A lot of people don't know that the first home of the police department was in the basement of Hathaway's, a bar on Route 130," Seymour says. "There were no radios in the cars, but a red light outside Hathaway's would be turned on to alert patrol cars going by."

Another set of negatives yielded photos that delighted retired Police Chief Edmund DeLussey, 76.

A half century ago, the professional photos taken at DeLussey's wedding to his wife, Mary Ellen, did not come out.

But an officer whose name is not known now also had brought a camera to the nuptials, and when Seymour printed a photo, he recognized the former chief.

"My parents were thrilled, absolutely thrilled," says DeLussey's daughter Corinne Groark, a middle school teacher who lives and works in nearby Delran.

Other photos depict a little girl and her father, Cinnaminson Police Lt. William Joseph Peters.

He was blinded in one eye after being shot three times while investigating a gas station robbery on Sept. 28, 1966; he died in 2012.

"I had never seen this picture," his daughter Michele Peters, who lives in Cinnaminson, says, adding, "the memories came flooding back for my mom" as well.

"These photos have opened so many lines of communication on Facebook," and face to face, she says.

Grown children of other retired or deceased Cinnaminson cops "remember these guys coming over to their house when they were kids," says Peters.

"We had each other's backs. We were one big tight-knit family."

And thanks to Seymour, as well as Lillagore, there are whole new family albums to savor.

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