Family Photo Mysteries by Quentin Robinson, Tippecanoe County Historian.
A while back I was looking at an old photo album which had, I think, belonged to my grandmother Robinson. Most of the pictures in it date from the teens through about 1940. This picture really caught my attention. Why is the buggy hanging from the side of the barn? Who are those guys and what are they doing? Did someone play a practical joke on them? Why is the guy wearing an apron?
Then I realized there were four other pictures on the next page that all had something in common with this one. Each of them showed the man in the white apron. Being the self-appointed family historian I have become familiar with the faces of many, if not most of the faces I see in the old family photos. Partly because I had asked my grandma or some other family elder about them, or because a few had names written on them. Eventually I had looked at them often enough that they became as familiar to me as my own immediate family. The guy in the apron, him, I did not recognize. In fact there were several people who appear in that group of photos that I did not recognize, but I felt like there was some sort of story being told with that series of images and I wanted to know what it was.
Of course, anyone who could have told me what was going on in those pictures, and names of the unidentified was long gone from this world and I had failed to ask the question when I had the opportunity.
If I were to place the images in some sort of order that seems to make a story this would appear to be the logical one to follow the buggy hanging from the barn.
Same guy wearing the white apron and the same hat, but still I don’t recognize him as any known relative. I don’t know a lot about horses, but this looks like a good one.
With those two images I’m still having trouble making a story, but clearly, when you look at the third image it appears the first two pictures have come together, the buggy has been put to use hitched to the horse in the second photo, and there is that same apron guy, but with a new face next to him which is no more familiar to me than apron guy.
Now however the location is clear to me. It is the farm of my great grandparents and after them, my grandparents. None of those buildings remain today. A fire in 1928 took the house and several of the outbuildings, another fire in about 1960 took the big barn seen in the first picture. However I have seen enough pictures of those buildings that I knew where this story was unfolding.
After the 1928 fire my grandparents built another house on the spot where the big house stood and having spent much of my childhood there I could probably walk to the very spot where that horse and buggy are sitting in this picture.
The last two images appear to go with the first three and were quite possibly taken the same day. They provide a bit more of the story. In the first one the man with the apron is standing in the open doorway of a building I knew to have been a two room combination summer kitchen and workshop which sat near the big house. Looking back at photo three it is the small building just behind the buggy and left of the house. In later years my grandfather had a garage in about that same location. Maybe this explains the apron. He’s been working in the summer kitchen. The second man in the buggy picture is seated in a chair leaning against the side of the building apart from 4 younger men are seated on a bench, all unknown faces in a photo album where most of the faces were relatives that I recognized from having spent years looking at family pictures.
Finally, the fifth and last picture that appears to have been taken on that day appear to be the same group of men, plus some family members that I recognized. My great grandmother seated in the back on the far right, my grandfather is seated with the men, on the front row, second from the right and three of his four sisters are on the porch. That’s the east side porch, so I know this was taken in the morning. Was it a threshing crew? I thought that was possible. Hired hands? I didn’t think that was as likely. After my great grandfather died in 1914, and even before he died they did often have hired hands, but it was usually only one or two at a time, not a crew of this size. I figured since great grandfather was not in the group picture on the porch these must have been taken sometime after his death in 1914, but not too long after that because my grandpa’s youngest sister doesn’t appear more than about 8 or 10 years old in that porch picture and she was born in 1907.
Now this is where a little serendipity comes into play. Solving old photo mysteries don’t usually happen this easily. I was looking at a story in the life of my great grandmother and her family, but I didn’t quite have the whole picture.
I remembered that I have a Farmers Account Book that had been kept by my great grandfather and after his death by my great grandmother. They noted things like the date they planted corn, dates and the amount they paid someone to work, amounts farm goods were sold for, weather, birth dates and names of new colts and that sort of thing. I wondered if maybe I’d find some clue in that account book which runs from about 1907 to about 1918.
Sure enough! I found a note made by my great grandmother on Friday April 9, 1915. She noted: “Men moved goods into old house to begin work on stone road, Mr Edd Steeley and Jim Standford contractors. Rented old house and west side of cow barn for $8.00 a month and they are to put in grade for my driveway.”The crew was still there in June when she noted “men not getting much done on road on account of rain.” I really did not expect to figure out the meaning of those 5 pictures, but I believe the presence of that road crew, renting the old house during the summer of 1915 is probably what they are all about. “The old house” she described was the summer kitchen/workshop seen above. It had been part of the original house built on that location about 1850. The rest of the old house had been torn down but those two rooms were moved into the position seen in these pictures when the big house was built in 1911. I’m supposing the man in the white apron was the designated cook for the crew. Incidentally, it turns out the first picture did not depict some unusual practical joke. Some further investigating showed me that farmers often stored “seasonal” modes of transportation in the hay lofts of their barns. That buggy would have been a summer/fair weather rig. It is probable that during the summer, if they owned a sleigh, it would have been stored up there too. I still don’t have names to put with the faces, but I think it is safe to call them “The Road Crew of 1915” and that 1915 was the year my great grandmother got her crushed stone drive and the county road out front was improved from dirt to gravel.
Need help dating and identifying your historic family photos? Check out these websites:
Heritage Photo & Research Services