One of the finest homes in Brattleboro, Vermont, Blake Block was built as a residence in 1810. For many years it was the home of John W. Blake, one of Vermont's foremost lawyers, and of Blake's eldest son, John R. Blake. Also an important figure in Brattleboro's history, the younger Blake was a businessman who was influential in promoting the contruction of the Vermont and Massachusetts Railroad, which connected Brattleboro with Boston, furthering Vermont's trade and tourism. Perhaps because it was on the main street of a bustling village, the house was transformed into a commercial building in 1853, housing the village druggists, grocers, librarian, and booksellers.
October 1869 was a disastrous month for the city of Brattleboro. Unseasonable flooding tore away bridges and destroyed underground cisterns. Weeks later, when a fire in a saloon could not be contained, the buildings on a large part of Main Street, including the commercial property known as Blake Block, were destroyed.
The identity of the person who photographed Blake Block before the fire is unknown; at that time Brattleboro had many local photographers. Caleb Lysander Howe's stereocard, made after the fire, was probably produced to be sold in a set of town views. Typical of many nineteenth-century photographers, Howe found his trade by chance rather than design. A farmer and music teacher, he became fascinated with the medium when an itinerant photographer set up a temporary studio near the Howe family farm in 1852. Howe offered to buy him out for three hundred dollars and, thus equipped, launched a new career that was profitable enough to become a family business.
Merry A. Foresta American Photographs: The First Century (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art with the Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996)