Cleaning out the garage or attic - or - Revealing the family “Time Capsule”
My younger sister, Anne, and I are well into our 7th decade, bringing with us accumulations of ‘stuff’ we, our family and some friends gathered along the way. Over time we became repositories for things others did not want or residuals after they passed away. At some point we realized it was time to sort through things with a view to getting rid of some or all our accumulations. Little did we know what we were in for or what we would learn.
Our parents met during summers in the mid-1930s working at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado. They were in separate colleges in Iowa but shared a love of the Colorado mountains. After college our mother took a teaching position in Iowa before marrying our father and together they moving to Kansas, North Dakota, then Annapolis, Maryland, where they lived together for four decades, raising two children, before our father passed away.
Since leaving home, my sister has lived in five places and I have lived in over a dozen. During all that time we both collected "stuff" which was important at the time and now cannot find, or if we can find wonder what our thought process was when we bought that ‘thing’.
From time to time my sister and I would come across items our parents accumulated early in their marriage, including two large trunks, one in the attic, another down in the basement. Queries were responded to with "Oh, that’s stuff before we got married." Then before we knew it our parents were gone. My sister ended up in Eugene, OR, and I currently reside in Fresno, CA. My sister and I have remained close if for no other reason than to insist the other take this item or that.
As the dust of time settled, my sister and I realized we needed to figure out what to do with all the "stuff" our parents and friends had bequeathed to us. So, we started going through things.
Some of the first items my sister and I were confronted with were two very large trunks, one being 2’H x 3’L x 21” deep, with the words “R.A. GOODWIN, FARGO, NO DAK” painted on it in white letters. Another of equal size with no markings. We reflected that shortly after their marriage the entirety of our parents’ possessions fit into those two trunks. A sharp contrast to ½ an 18-wheeler used to move our mother’s belongings from Annapolis to Fresno in her 7th decade.
So, we opened the trunk and family history unfolded before us in black and white negatives, yearbooks, college letter sweaters, diplomas, yearbooks and other memorabilia.
One discovery was a film mailer with a return address in Atlantic IA to our father in Ames IA, mailed for the exorbitant price of six (6) cents. The envelope gave us our mother’s and father’s addresses while they were dating – information we were not aware prior to finding the envelope. Inside the envelope was a trove of negatives, which we shortly realized were cut from a black and white negative roll which was 2 1/2” wide and who knows how long. Inside were negatives of our parents on excursions along the “High Road” in Rocky Mountain National Park just above Estes Park with friends they knew and worked with at the Stanley Hotel. One negative showed our father catching a softball on the field in front of the hotel, where staff hung out during breaks. A another showed our dad and other staff on a ‘smoke break’ outside the kitchen. We could not identify individuals in several photos, so we contacted the Museum at the Stanley Hotel and donated several photos in honor of our parents to the hotel museum. We discovered our father had hair prior to 1925, and interesting way to date many of the negatives.
We opened another envelope and found negatives of our mother’s dorm room, roommate, and friends at the University of Iowa. Other negatives showed several of mom’s college friends, people she dated prior to meeting our father, and other friends she hung out with prior to getting married.
There had always been family pictures around the house, including pictures of my sister and I growing up. But additional envelopes revealed negatives neither of us had ever seen, including negatives of the apartment our mother lived in prior to getting married, negatives of our parents dating, negatives of my sister’s first birthday celebration, and more negatives of both of us as we grew from days, weeks, months, and years for growth.
Another envelope included pictures from the 1800s of relatives we both knew about but had never seen pictures of.
Putting the negatives into chronological order proved an adventure in itself.
In our early years our parents kept two albums (presumably one for our family and one for grandparents) of my sister and I as we grew up. We knew they would be a great help getting the pictures in chronological order, until we realized one album had one set of dates, another album another set of dates – the differences were often months or a few years apart.
There were several pictures of our mother alone and with her siblings as she grew up. Not so many with our father. My sister came across an album from our great aunt which provided us some context and chronology.
We knew our mother was born in Grand Rapids, but we had not seen the negatives of some of our grandparents and relatives who lived there, nor the snowstorms our mother experienced. We knew our mother moved to Chicago on or about 1919-1921. We were excited to find negatives of the old “Maxwell Street Market” where our mother lived in a warehouse near the Reading Railroad tracks – the picture of a rail caboose with “Reading Railroad” helped. We also found negatives of the WWI Victory Parade in Chicago and “Market Day” at the Maxwell Street Market.
Reaching out to a cousin, we uncovered one relative’s discharge papers from the Civil War, news reports of a relative’s death in a train crash in 1902 as well as pictures of his funeral.
Coincidentally, my sister and I have been working on our family tree, so the negatives helped provide visual confirmation of some of the things we thought we knew. Our paternal grandfather had done research in the mid 20th century on the Goodwins, using research available at Goodspeed Bookstore in Boston and the Princeton University Library.
So, in order to preserve our family history, my sister and I did the only responsible thing, we bought more "stuff." Both of us invested in scanners so we could convert the many negatives into positives, scan boxes of slides and pictures, then upload everything into google albums so that our children – who are too busy raising their own families at the moment – will have a visual and documentary history of their ancestors.
Continuing to go through the trunks and boxes I came across a very old camera which was undoubtedly the camera our mother used in the 1930s to take pictures, the kind only seen in old movies.
AFTER going through everything we found, the real fun began – sorting it, categorizing it and then passing it on or disposing of it.
As we said, we donated some old photographs to the Museum at the Stanley Hotel. We also reached out to the Chicago History Museum to see if they might be interested in old photos of Chicago. Our uncle was a famous architect in Chicago and a reporter – doing a story on his life – was very interested in some of the negatives we had of his early work.
It was been an exciting adventure as we explore our family history and attempt to record our memories for our family.
One cautionary note. When I opened one old camera, I found a roll of film inside. I plan to develop the film anyway to see what was of interest decades ago, but may have lost some pictures.
Our children have enjoyed seeing pictures of their distant relatives and places we all lived. My sister and I have time now to do what I am sure our parents intended to do when they put all the "stuff" into the trunks. The experience also made us realize the questions we should have asked our parents while they were still alive.