Revisiting My Photo Archives

My divorce this year has led me to look through the family archives and review my personal photo collection. Print after print, box after box, I’ve been busy making scans of significant, memorable, or otherwise important family pictures (thank you, Flip-Pal). Predominantly of my daughters, the images in some cases date back more than 10 years. That decade is fairly small in the larger canvas of my family’s history, but in my own life – the here and now – it represents so much more.

Those images, and the memories they stir, serve as a personal reminder of what we do every day as family historians – collecting a lifetime of memories, stories, and images, and sharing them with the current and future generations. With my divorce, sharing those stories, events, traditions, and memories (and making new ones) with my daughters is now even more of a priority for me.

Here are just a few pictures that jumped out at me as I was poring through the family photo boxes. This first one is of my oldest daughter (she’s 11 now), where we are busy playing “Daddy with a Bucket on His Head.” Thankfully, my daughter’s accessorizing has moved past plastic headwear and on to more sophisticated pursuits, such as my suit, shirt, and tie combinations. And for the record, her taste remains exquisite; my work shirts and ties today nearly surpass my bucket-wearing days of the not-so-distant past.

SCAN0185_copyHere is another picture, this one of my youngest daughter with my father. About 6 months old at the time and at her first Christmas, what strikes me with this image is how intense my daughter’s gaze is. Nearly 9 years later, that gaze can still penetrate.

SCAN0144_copyFinally, this image is from just a few weeks ago, and has immediately become a personal favorite. Taken in Detroit right before the “Star Wars”-themed night at the ballpark, because nothing says baseball like The Force, Jedi Masters, and Boba Fett. We are all clearly eager for the evening’s festivities to begin and, of note, my youngest daughter even picked out my T-shirt.

Tigers_2Those photographs of the girls remind me of our special moments, those memories of Daddy-daughter outings, ice cream jaunts, video games, air hockey, and skeeball at the arcade, bath time, bedtime songs and rituals, and so much more. Looking ahead, I will be more mindful and appreciative of those moments with the kids, capturing and sharing those memories of the 3 of us together and our new family moving forward, today and into the future.

Lovin’ My Flip-Pal Scanner

A few months ago at the Historical Society of Michigan’s Local History Conference, I purchased a Flip-Pal mobile scanner from my good friend and fellow genealogist Karen Krugman. As a Flip-Pal independent reseller, she’d earlier given me a demonstration when she came to research at the Library of Michigan, and had also written about and talked up the portable and versatile scanner.

Like any child on Christmas morning, I held the device in my hands, excited about the possibilities. Visions of grandeur danced through my head, scanning this, scanning that, transforming my entire collection of genealogical images and documents into a digital paradise in a matter of days.

Well….as it often does, life got in the way. Fast forward to a few weeks ago – the kids were asleep early and I’m suddenly left with an open evening (!). What’s a genealogist to do? I pulled out the Flip-Pal and finally got to work.

My first target was an old photo album from Leona Hansen, my great-grandmother. Born in Chicago in March 1897, she married Fenton Harvey Russell in October 1918, and died in Michigan City, Indiana in February 1981. Leona’s photo album contains hundreds of images, all taken roughly between 1916-1918, most of them in or around Chicago. As with many scrapbooks and albums from that era, the photographs were pasted or taped to the black construction paper pages; as the years have passed, the strength of the pages has deteriorated, leaving many frayed corners, separated pages, and loose pictures. As a result, I’d been reluctant to further stress the album’s binding and pages, yet still wanted to transfer the album into a digital format using affordable technology.

Enter the Flip-Pal. Removing the scanner lid, I laid the scanner face down on each page and, with minimal pressure, quickly scanned the album in its entirety. Although the scanner bed is a fair size, it did take several scans to capture each page from the album. With the scanning completed, the fun really begins: stitching together multiple scans. After selecting which images to piece together, the software does all the work and in just a few moments presents a new image, digitally re-creating the album’s page in its entirety. Easy!

Here is one example from the album, where three separate scans were stitched seamlessly together.

Page from Leona Hansen photo album, c. 1916-1918.

Here we have Rose Hansen on the left, her husband Sophus in the middle, and finally, Leona herself on the right. If you can make it out on the bottom left hand corner, the penciled-in date reads August 1917. Leona is therefore 20 years old, about one year before her marriage to Fenton Russell.

Battery powered, easy-to-use, portable, and affordable, a combination that can’t be beat. With this first album scanned and stitched, I can’t wait to get started on the rest of my collection!

Grossmama Grobner

Being at NGS in Cincinnati this past week, and catching up on things at home, I haven’t had much time to work on blog postings. Cincinnati was a terrific host city, the conference itself was fantastic, and it was nice to catch up with friends and to make new ones. I’ll write more later on the conference, but for today, I’m going to look at one of my more treasured family photographs.

Shirley Russell, my grandmother, was born in Chicago in 1922. She married William Alderson in 1942, and together, they spent many years with their family in the Windy City before moving to New Buffalo, Michigan in the late 1960’s. I take particular delight in seeing images of my grandmother as a toddler, girl, or young woman, as all of my personal memories of her are as an older woman with snow white hair; the idea of her as someone  more youthful – with “not-white” hair – was completely foreign to me until I stumbled across an older collection of family photographs.

Shirley Russell and “Grossmama” Frederica Jarand Grobner, Chicago, May 1924.

Here, a label with the May 1924 photo identifies my grandmother with “Grossmama,” who I believe is Frederica Jarand Grobner, her great-grandmother. The only other possible ancestor from that time on my tree would be Mary Ann Everett Russell, but with her English and Canadian ancestry, the image’s use of the German “Grossmama” does not fit particularly well. Thus, the likely image of Frederica Jarand emerges; her parents were both born in Germany, and she spent her early years in the German community in Quincy, Illinois. She took over her father’s saloon after his death in 1882 before moving to Chicago with her husband Joseph Grobner around 1890.

In the image above, my grandmother would be just past her second birthday, while Frederica would be about 70 years old. Indeed, she would pass away a few years later in July 1930, a few months after the 1930 Census.

Multi-generational photos are always priceless in their own way, and this one is no exception. My grandmother’s clear displeasure with getting her picture taken with Grossmama is particularly obvious. Thinking back to some of my own personal experiences, I think we’ve all been there….

Do You Know This Man?

We all have interesting photos in our collections, those images of the distant past where we have little to no idea about the who, what, when, where, or why.

Here is one of mine:

Who are we?

With no obvious identifying marks on the tintype, neither the man (nice mustache, by the way) nor the young girl are identified. Why is she so out of focus? What is she holding or leaning against? Perhaps she is his daughter?

The only information I have to work from is the image was mixed in amongst several other photos from my Russell and Everett lines, all dating from the families’ time in Toronto. This would also be the time period when the tintype was prevalent in photographic technology. A small lead, to be sure, but a lead nonetheless.

The girl could be my g-g grandmother, Mary Ann Everett, but it’s hard to say with any degree of certainty, as her face is so out of focus, and other images I have of her are as a much older woman. Could the man, then, be my g-g-g grandfather, still an unnamed and unidentified leaf on my family tree?

Ironically, the image above represents the oldest original document or image in my possession. My oldest family resource, and I know next to nothing about it!


The Meeting of the Minds

Growing up, I was fortunate – blessed, really – to have all 4 of my grandparents in my life. My brother and I have hundreds of memories shared with the Alderson’s and Rzepczynski’s, whether in New Buffalo, Kalamazoo, or at Gravel Lake. Yet despite all the time we spent with each set of grandparents, there were precious few moments or gatherings where all 4 of them were together. Of course, there certainly were those moments before I was born, but as a child, the idea that all 4 grandparents would be together was quite extraordinary and exciting. Whether a graduation party or the summer get-together at Gravel Lake, those shared family events were always memorable.

I have very few images of my 4 grandparents together as I knew them later in their lives, although I do have a few photos of them separately or as adults years before. Here is a fairly recent one with my two grandfathers:

William Alderson and Leo Rzepczynski, April 1995.

This meeting of the grandfatherly minds was in the spring of 1995, likely at my college graduation party; William Alderson is on the left, and Leo Rzepczynski on the right. This gathering represents one of the last family functions where all 4 of my grandparents were together; William Alderson died in December 1997, and Leo’s wife Stella passed away in January 1997.

As a youngster, I always eagerly anticipated having my two grandfathers together, as there was sure to be some raucous storytelling, the occasional expletive, and plenty of laughs. Yet with my two grandfathers, one story always stood out.

Back in the day, driving near or around Gravel Lake, one grandfather apparently cut off the other. A car horn blast by the innocent grandfather was answered by the other with the universal hand gesture. What makes that exchange so funny is that neither man realized who the other party was until later. I don’t recall much more about the exchange, but two things I remember vividly are the absolute delight in my Grandpa Alderson’s voice as he retold and relived the story, and my Grandpa Rzepczynski’s uproarious laughter at being “fingered” as the guilty party.

I think of that terrific story every time I see a photo of the two men together, and in this case, the family story is perhaps even better than the image itself.

A Rediscovered Gathering

Few things are as exhilarating for a genealogist as looking through old family photographs and discovering something new, an important clue or detail that was overlooked or missed at the first glance. One such example is a set of photographs I have of Leona Hansen, my great-grandmother, and a group of her teenage friends, each in in various costumes and slumber party-wear.

Born in Chicago in 1897, Leona Hansen lived at 7042 Kimbark for many years with her parents, Sophus and Rose. After her marriage in 1918 to Fenton Harvey Russell, Leona and her new husband continued to reside at the same address. Later in life, Leona moved to New Buffalo, Michigan, and died in February 1981 in Michigan City, Indiana.

Here is one of the images I recently re-discovered; taken roughly between 1914-1916, it is one of my favorites:

A Friend-ly Get Together, Chicago, c. 1916

Moving right to left, Leona is the third from the right, marked with a “Leona” above her. A number of details immediately jump out from the image. One is the decorative pumpkin on the piano on the right, indicating that the picture was likely taken around Halloween; the girls’ costumes reinforce this idea. The image was likely taken in one of the girls’ homes, as the interior furnishings suggest. The portrait on the upper right corner could potentially be an important clue, but I unfortunately do not recognize the subject. Another important clue is the photographer, identified on the lower left: Garvey, 1443 E. 63rd St in Chicago. That address is fairly close to Leona’s house on Kimbark, another good sign; further research with the Chicago city directories may clarify the studio’s years of operation, thus narrowing the approximate year of the photograph. The other young women in the photograph are all unidentified, but are presumably classmates; this verifies my estimated years for the date of the photograph.

At the time I scanned the photographs, I was so focused on the fact that Leona was in each one, I missed several of the key clues mentioned above. I need to spend some time studying both Maureen Taylor and Colleen Fitzpatrick‘s books on photographs to glean additional clues from each of the images. Many questions still remain: Who are the other young women? What school did they attend? Where was the picture taken? How was Halloween celebrated in the World War I era? Even with one simple image, the research is never done!

Revisiting Old Photographs

In my research, I came across an impressive collection of family photographs. Certainly a big find, and equally important, it offered me a new project! Many of the photographs were not labeled or identified, so as I scanned the collection, it was important to label everything as best I could, leaving many of the photos with a simple and unfortunate title – “Unknown.” In the field of family history research, is there a more frustrating word?

Once I finished scanning, I was excited to have crossed a project off my to-do list and anxious to start something new, so I never went back and really studied my “Unknown” images. So, I’ve started a new project and made it a point to go back and revisit those photos, and rename or relabel those individuals I can accordingly. There is never enough time in one night to go through the entire set, so I make an effort to do a reasonable number per night, perhaps 5 or 10 images. It will take me a while to go through the collection, but if I identify even a few ancestors in the photographs, it will have been worth it.

One of my ancestral re-discoveries is this gem of Sophus and Rose Hansen.

Sophus and Rose Hansen, August 1922.

Readers of this blog might remember the Hansen’s from the “Looks As If We Had a Fight Here” post. When I had first scanned this image, outside of the date, there were no identifying marks, so I was unable to determine who the couple was. Indeed, this was one of the first images I had worked with, so although not named in this particular image, they certainly were in different photographs far deeper into the pile. Only by going back and carefully reviewing those images, both the known and unknown, was I able to identify Sophus and Rose and extract them from my pile of Unknown’s.

I’ve been pleased with how many photographs I’ve now been able to identify at least one ancestor in the image. Clearly, something I should have done right away. A lesson learned!