Monday, December 11, 2017

"In the Prime of Life"

It never ceases to amaze me how much can be learned about an "average" life, just by picking up a photograph of a stranger and researching his life's story. We've already seen that when I found an entire photo album in an local antique shop—discovering enough information to send the photo collection home to family in County Cork, Ireland—and we will certainly have the same type of experience while exploring the details in another found photo, this time of a man with a moustache from Walnut, Kansas, known as John Blain.

By the time the man with the moustache was forty four—what some would consider the prime of his life—he and his family had moved from Walnut, Kansas, to a smaller town to the north, known as Centerville. John was in the lumber and furniture business, which had apparently brought him to Centerville in the first place. He had been there since a year or two after the 1900 census. At the point of the 1905 state census, he and his wife Harriet were living in a Centerville home with their two daughters, Emma and Rozella. Within a year, the family was joined by twin daughters Vera and Vida.

By June of 1908, whether for business reasons or for visits to family in other parts of the state, John Blain would pass through the little town of Paola, a stop where he needed to change trains on his way to or from Centerville, about once a month.

On one particular day, arriving at Paola about noontime, John stepped off his train and headed down the sidewalk to cross the tracks to make his train change. When he was barely two feet from the tracks, for whatever reason, someone hollered to him, and he turned to see who it was. Just at that moment, a passing train on the parallel line for the Missouri Pacific Railway struck him and knocked him twenty feet.

Such a trajectory from the sudden blow caused injuries to John's head, back and chest, all of which were treated by a local physician in the doctor's own office.

When he was deemed able to be moved—and one can only imagine in what shape that might have been—John was transported home to Centerville to recuperate from his injuries. His recovery period, however, was cut short: within three days, and after considerable agony, John Blain succumbed to both internal and external injuries sustained from the incident in Paola. Following his unfortunate death on June 20, 1908, his body was returned to his childhood home in Walnut, where he was buried in the same cemetery where his mother had been laid to rest only four years before.

Left with four daughters under the age of ten, John's widow, undoubtedly with the encouragement of legal counsel, filed suit against the Missouri Pacific Railway Company, a process which did not finally get resolved for another eight years.  

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Taking Stock of Possibilities

It was mission accomplished this past Tuesday, up in the foothills of northern California. Following some prodding by my daughter and guidance from a helpful friend of hers, I made a day of it and drove up toward the region of the state best known for its role in the California gold rush well over a century ago. There to keep me company on the drive—and to make sure I didn't miss out on any fabulous bargains or potential blog-post-worthy photography finds—was my good friend and mentor Sheri Fenley of The Educated Genealogist.

Of course, we had a blast. Anyone traveling with Sheri can't help but have fun. On the way up, we enjoyed the beautiful vistas, the sunshine and blue skies, and the changing scenery from our flat valley hometown to the modest altitude of about twelve hundred feet as we made our way northeastward.

Our strategy was to start near the intersection of the aptly-named state Highway 49 and Highway 88. Then, we'd work our way southward for as many towns—and their antique stores—as necessary until we obtained our goal of rescuing enough old photographs with names out of which to tease a few stories.

First stop was a favorite among antiquing enthusiasts: a "city" of a mere twenty five hundred called Sutter Creek. It will come as no surprise to you to learn that the place was named after John Sutter, whose logging operations in the area occurred as early as 1846. While the tiny town comes with a rich history—and an enthusiastic following of weekend bargain hunters—on a Tuesday in early December, there was not much to be found in the one antique shop which happened to be open when we got there.

Undaunted, we continued on our itinerary to our next stop, which was a short drive south on Highway 49. This brought us to the Main Street of Jackson, county seat of Amador County and a city of at least two thousand more people than Sutter Creek. Despite being home to several antique shops—and regardless of the hours they were reported to be open that day—once again, we found only one true antique shop open for business.

Nevertheless, it only takes one to achieve the goal, and this one—predictably called "Antiques on Main"—made it possible for us to come home with our goal amply in hand.

What I was hoping for were old photos containing both a full name and a location. For anyone who enjoys following "Far Side of Fifty" on her blog, Forgotten Old Photos, you know how hard it can be to accomplish such a goal. What was wonderful at this shop, though, was that there were several boxes full of photographs. Most lacked any identification, of course, but there were several which either featured a full name, or at least seemed to indicate a connection to other photographs containing more hints. Most were in English and were of American subjects, but it was tantalizing to find photos from other countries, including one dated 1873 with German writing on the back.

It was great having a friend come along on this journey, not just for the company of course, but also for Sheri's assistance in searching through the large number of photographs, and for her professional genealogist's eye in finding the candidates most likely to succeed in my project. The only down side was that our must-have pile started getting much larger than my budget for the project. It was a shining moment when the shopkeeper stopped by to see how we were doing, and mentioned she could offer a discount if we decided to buy a good number of photographs.

I always like that word, discount.

Needless to say, we came away from our excellent adventure with enough photographic cousin bait to keep me busy for many posts to come.

Above: Photograph of Sutter Creek, California, as it appeared in 1853; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Paying it Forward
One Document at a Time

Plunging into the subsequent generations of the man whose photo I found in an antique shop, I learn that one of his daughters had married a man born in Greece. At the time period in which this happened, a female American who entered into such a marriage lost her citizenship, and could only regain it upon going through the same naturalization process as her husband. Of course, I can trace the process from the point at which she married the Greek man, and at which point she filed her papers to regain her citizenship, but as for the interim—in which the man apparently changed his name to a much simpler American surname—I can find no such documentation.

Perhaps for that reason, when it came time for this month's volunteer work at indexing genealogical records, I decided to look at the naturalization records needing some work at I indexed two batches of naturalization records in the hope that every little bit helps. More to the point, I hoped that this Greek man's legal paper trail might be one of the records about to be released into the searchable stack, once this set of records is completely indexed.

While the batches of records I handled seemed to contain only immigrants from Italy and Switzerland, I have to trust that somewhere, somehow, the pages with the Blain family's son in law will soon surface. So many of us have benefited from records which have already been digitized, indexed and placed online. We didn't do the work to get those records online, of course, but we can do our part to pass the blessing along to others by helping to get even more records on the website. That's why I try to do a little bit of indexing every month. Every little bit does turn out to make a difference.

Whether I ever find that Greek son in law's naturalization records or not, I know that the few minutes I dedicated to doing this easy bit of volunteer work—in the cozy comfort of my own home, complete with mocha and snacks—will make research easier for someone else, just like others have done in the past for me.

Above: Victorian Trade Card for Alter, Forwood & Company, prepared by lithographer A. B. Seeley in 1881; courtesy Miami University Libraries Digital Library Program via Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Gone a-courtin' in the Show-Me State

Though it's only an hour's drive away in today's travel conditions, I don't suppose I had expected a young man who had just moved from Kentucky to Kansas to slip over the border to yet another state to find his bride. Shows you what a poor guesser I am.

By the time we had found John Blain in the 1880 census, the Kentucky native was only seventeen years of age. Of course, it was a few years after that point—actually, closer to the turn of the century—when he began thinking about finding someone with whom to tie the knot, so perhaps by then, he had already scoped out the possibilities in his newly-adopted state and decided to look elsewhere.

If it weren't for those shaky-leaf hints at Ancestry, I wouldn't have given it a thought to look for marriage records for John Blain in Missouri, but that is apparently where he found the love of his life. She was a gal in her late twenties by the name of Harriet Beeman who caught his eye. Living in yet another of those small, rural towns—Walker, in Vernon County, Missouri—Harriet told John "I do" before the local Justice of the Peace on the twenty third of September in the year 1897.

When we found the newlyweds back in Walnut, Kansas, in the next census—taken nearly three years later in June, 1900—John and Harriet were the proud parents of daughter Emma, who had arrived in the Blain household in August of the previous year. As it turned out, baby Emma was to be the first of four daughters. Following her arrival in 1899, she was joined by sisters Rozella in 1902 and twins Vera and Vida in 1906.

By the time of the twins' arrival, their paternal grandmother had already passed away—a sadness not unknown by many young families, certainly, but unlikely to be the impetus for the next occurrence in the life of the Blain family. With the 1905 Kansas state census, we learn that John and Harriet and their children had moved from their rental home in Walnut to another place in an even smaller community about fifty five miles to the north, known as Centerville.

Perhaps it was on account of his business that John moved his family away from Walnut. The 1905 state census reported his occupation to be "hardware." Whether for business or simply to keep in touch with family back home in Walnut, John found himself traveling by train to span the hour's travel distance between his old hometown and the new community. It was on one such trip that life suddenly changed for the entire family.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

New Kid in (New) Town

When John Blain showed up in the 1880 census in Walnut, Kansas—just where his 1880s-style photograph led me to find him—he was still a teenager living with his parents. There in the home of William T. and Martha Wortham Blain, John appeared as the eldest of their six children.

One fact stood out to me in this household: everyone in the family, down to three year old Nettie Blain, had not been born in Kansas, but in Kentucky.

I decided to try my hand at finding the Blain family in the 1870 census, to see where they might have originated in Kentucky. I already figured that nine year old Rufus, seven year old Effie and their youngest sister Nettie would not be part of that earlier Kentucky household, but knew it wouldn't be hard to locate the three older children with their parents in the 1870 enumeration.

Sure enough, it looks like the Blains' hometown was a place equally as tiny as their new home in Kansas: a town of about three hundred residents called Livermore in McLean County, Kentucky.

Sometime between the birth of their then-youngest daughter Nettie around 1877 and the 1880 census, the Blains left their Kentucky farm and migrated the five hundred miles across the state of Missouri to reach the eastern edge of Kansas and their new home. From that point on, it appeared William and Martha Blain's family stayed in Walnut; they appeared in the 1885 state census and the 1900 federal census.

Considering William was born around 1832, and his wife in 1839, you would not find it surprising to learn that their names eventually dropped off the census rolls after the turn of the century. Indeed, Martha predeceased her husband in 1904 at the age of sixty four. William followed in 1915, and the couple were both buried in that Kansas town of Walnut where they had settled.

When their son John emerged from that fifteen year gap in governmental records in 1900, things were quite different for him. Gone was the seventeen year old son, living in his parents' home, according to that 1880 census. Now, he was a salesman and family man of thirty seven years of age. Married and with a young daughter living at home, still in Walnut, perhaps he felt he had a good long—and hopefully successful—life ahead of him.

You already can guess that that, of course, is not what happened. Life stories naturally come with twists and turns, and John Blain's was no different, although I'll admit the future he was about to face was somewhat more unusual than most.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Meet the Man With the Moustache

An old photograph of a mystery man can offer several hints—if the viewer is able to perceive those clues and understand their meaning. Everything from the style and size of the photograph to the material of the card stock it was mounted on can help estimate when the picture was taken. Of course, the very clothes the subject was wearing—or even the style of his moustache—can date the photograph as well, as can information included in the photographer's imprint.

In the case of the photograph I found a few years ago, along with that old Christmas photo album in a northern California antique store, most of the details were simple. Because the mounting measured about four and a quarter by six and a half inches, I knew I was looking at a cabinet card, rather than the earlier—and much smaller—presentation style known as the carte de visite. That helped me zero in on a time frame beginning around 1865, and more likely around the late 1870s and 1880s.

That, however, is too wide a time frame for me. Thankfully, even the smaller details within the picture frame can narrow the date. A useful checklist in an article on dating cabinet cards mentioned that lightweight card stock, like the one in my photograph, was used from about 1866 to 1880—which also was the time frame for use of cream colored card stock. However, the article also mentioned that a matte-finished front, rather than glossy finish, was used from 1882 to 1888.

Still, that date range seems rather wide. Thankfully, there are other ways to date a photograph, as well. The subject of the photograph can provide enormous tells, when it comes to dating the picture. The style of the collar, the width of the lapels, the type of knot used on the tie—or even that moustache—are some of the many clues revealing a time frame.

While I'm not particularly handy at reviewing such details, I know there are training resources out there to help; our genealogical society recently hosted the "Genealogy Lady," Deborah Sweeney, who spoke on how to track fashion details for photographs. If I am stumped with the other possible routes to guessing the decade to focus on, I can certainly use the guidance gained from Deborah's workshop.

Knowing all those resources for hints on dating photographs, what did I do? Just make an educated guess and jump in.

This may be ill-advised for those who like to proceed cautiously. After all, the man in my photograph could have ridden into town from a distance—we are talking agricultural country here—to have his picture taken. He could have lived anywhere. All we know is that the photograph was produced in a small town called Walnut in eastern Kansas. For all we know at this point, the photographer could have been itinerant, as well.

But I decided to take my chances. I made a wild guess that this man would be a resident of Walnut and would show up in the 1880 census. I did have, after all, his name: John Blain. While John is one of the most common names in the English language, I hoped that the surname might have tempered the results enough to provide a possibility. Besides, we're talking about a town with only about two hundred people in 1880.

Fortunately, there was one, and only one, John Blain in the 1880 census in Walnut, Kansas—although not the only one in the state of Kansas. What surprised me, though, was that at the time of the 1880 census, this John Blain in Walnut was only seventeen years of age.

Seventeen? That was not how the photograph made him appear. While he did look young, he certainly wasn't a teenager in that picture. Perhaps the portrait was taken much later—at least to the point at which our man could have sported his moustache for his likeness.

Still, at least we've already found our possible subject. Next, on to learn more about who this person was.



Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Walnut, Kansas: Snapshot in Time

Trying to weave a family history from the strands left on the back of an antique photograph can transport you to unexpected places. Take my last such experiment: an entire photo album with nothing but a few first names led me from the place of its discovery in northern California to its origin over five thousand miles away in County Cork, Ireland.

And oh, the stories we learned in the process! That kind of experience led me to the conclusion that nobody has a boring life story.

But what are the chances that we'll see a repeat performance with this next photo discovery? While I doubt I'll find a life story originating in that same country across the Atlantic, with a picture found in California, the possibilities are wide open.

Though the photograph I'll be chasing this time does contain the hint of a complete name—we have the benefit of a surname along with the generic given name of John—there is nothing much else to go by, other than the photographer's imprint on the front of the photograph. From that, we learn that the picture was taken in Kansas, in a small town called Walnut.

Whether the subject of the photograph actually lived in Walnut, we can't yet be sure, but at least we know he was in the vicinity, at least momentarily.

Since I'm not very good at guessing dates of photographs from either the style of the frame or the style of the clothing sported by the subject of the portrait, I decided to first learn what I could about that little town.

That, as it turned out, was a good start to the project. Right away, I learned that the population of Walnut in the 1880s—my guess for when the picture was taken—was barely two hundred. That, of course, increases our chance that, if we take a look at the 1880 census for that town, any matching name would not merely be a case of mistaken identity.

But was the photograph taken in 1880? By 1890, the town's population had multiplied to over five hundred residents. I took a look at other reports about the town to see if I could pinpoint dates even further.

According to one report, the town was relatively new at that time. Only laid out in 1871, the town was originally called Glenwood. Since our photograph clearly mentions the name of the town as Walnut, we know the photograph wouldn't have been taken that early.

That same report mentioned the town's name change had occurred in 1874—but that the post office didn't officially change its name until April of 1877. Another report, however—and this one was drawn up much closer to the time period, itself—explained that growth of the original town was hampered by dispute over the original title to the land, a difficulty which was not resolved until 1876. Upon that point, additional land was added to the original town plans up through 1882, thus allowing for expansion of business as well as the population beyond that date.

With a town that small, it goes without saying that there would be no "city" directory available online for me to look up any reference to the photography studio. Thankfully, though, the border of the picture clearly bears the imprint for a studio named Shuck, with the location, "Walnut, Kansas" included alongside the studio's identity.

How the photograph made it from Walnut, Kansas, to the antique shop where I found it in Lodi, California, is the question. I often imagine romantic stories accompanying such pictures: a beau missing his intended and sending a reminder; relatives back home missing their fortune-seeking children. The possibility for stories is immense—at least in my mind.

As I've done before, with this project, I'll start by constructing a hypothesis about the subject of the photograph. We've already noticed the imprint giving us a hint where the item originated; now, we need to see if anyone by our subject's name lived in that vicinity. If so, that will provide us with some additional facts to go by.

Then—if we can even find that much information—comes the tedious part of piecing that person's life story together, using documentation from all the usual sources genealogists are so familiar with handling. What comes next is anyone's guess, but getting to the point where we can figure this out will certainly be worth the journey. The added bonus, of course, is if we can reunite the found photo with the family to whom it really belongs.
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