Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween Memories from 1987

Our beloved Kippers on the back deck with a cat Jack-O-Lantern pal.

 Happy Halloween!
from 26 years ago...
Go out and make some memories

An impressive ghoul and a fine old fashioned lady (Ian and Courtney), both sensibly dressed for the occasion in athletic shoes.

Friday, October 25, 2013

As I Remember Them

I just finished reading The Distancers:  An American Memoir, by Lee Sandlin, which is an extremely well written account of the history behind his great grandparents' old house in southern Illinois.  The author gradually unfolds the personalities and lives of the elder relatives who lived there, many of whom were a regular part of Sandlin's life as a youngster.  What struck me most was the realistic portrayal of the attitude children often have toward their elders:  not questioning, but simply accepting who their family members are at face value, with all their faults and idiosyncrasies, while any strengths or aptitudes are usually taken for granted.  Questioning, reasoning and approaching an understanding of our elders' choices and actions usually comes later in life, and it often happens too late for us to be able ask the relatives themselves about their experiences or intentions.  And, that is what family history is all about:  piecing together the purpose and meaning of our ancestors' lives in order to better understand them and ourselves.

I was never fortunate enough to experience living with my great aunts and uncles (or grandparents, for that matter), for extended periods of time.  But, I always looked forward to Dad's two week vacation in August when the old Ford Ranch Wagon was packed up with suitcases and a twin mattress in the back for my sister and myself to sleep on.  Almost yearly we traveled from the Bay Area to Salem, Oregon, where we stayed at Aunt Phyllis's house and made the endless round of visits to my grandfather and his many brothers and sisters, as well as a few cousins.

Everywhere we went, modest dining room tables groaned with coffee and milk, sandwiches or pastries, wonderfully diverse jello or pasta salads, and best of all--homemade doughnuts.  As a child, I too was content to observe and wonder, never asking questions of my elders.  If I had, I might have been ignored, or at best, received a thinned-out version of the truth for an answer, or worse--been teased for asking in the first place.  We children knew our place!  So now that these elders are gone, I am left to piece together their lives out of a desire to know how they coped with everyday problems, and where they reaped their rewards.  I also want to know simply because I care.

The following photograph of my grandfather (front and center) and six out of his nine siblings was taken in in 1967, following the funeral of their sister, Thea (Johnson) Humberstad.  Thea was the first of the ten siblings to pass on.   They are all departed now, the last being Oral Johnson in 1996.

(Left to right), Front row:  Cora (Johnson) Moen, Ernest Johnson (my maternal grandfather), and Mabel Johnson.  Back row:  Carl Johnson, Frank Johnson (the youngest of the siblings), Oral Johnson, and Ruben Johnson.  Missing from the photo are Bennett Johnson (the eldest) and Odin Johnson, both from Minnesota, and of course, Thea (Johnson) Humberstad, who was buried that day.  The photographer was one of their neices, either Doris Johnson Wheeler or Phyllis Johnson Rice.  Although the photograph is dated with the printing date of May 1967 on the border, it was taken shortly after Thea Humberstad's death in February of that year.

As Sandlin stated in his memoir:  "all stories of the past are sad."  This photo is sad, too, not just because of the event that created it (a funeral), but because of the shared anguish among close family members after the loss of a loved one, and having to come face-to-face with the harsh reality of their own mortality in the process.  The shell-shocked look on many of the faces--my grandfather's especially--continues to haunt me.  Still, I cherish the photo because it represents my grandfather with most of his brothers and sisters together in one place, with everyone appearing exactly as I remember them during the mid-1960s.

The photograph was shot with a Kodak Instamatic camera, which was all the rage in the mid-1960s.  The subjects posed inside my great aunt Mabel Johnson's living room, on Ellis Ave. NE in Salem.  I cannot fail to recognize the vintage dark red upholstered chair that Mabel always kept by the front door, and I owned it for a time after her death in 1983.  Grandpa must have been given the only seat for the portrait because he was the eldest sibling present.  Most of the family lived in Salem, Oregon or the surrounding area, but three of the brothers, Bennett, Odin, and Oral, lived in Minnesota.  Only Oral Johnson was able to make the trip to the west coast for the funeral.  Thea, the departed, lived in West Salem with her husband Carl Humberstad in a tiny and immaculate white clapboard house with baby pink trim.

The people in the photograph were a big part of the backbone of extended family that I knew and loved as a youngster.  I miss them all, and if I could have one more chance to see them, there would be a thousand questions for each and every one.  All stories of the past may be sad in some way, mostly because they are from a time that is irretrievably lost to us, but that does not mean they should be ignored or avoided.  The reason why some of us spend so much time researching family history is to rediscover the experiences of those who paved life's road ahead of us, winding through all of its mysterious peaks and valleys.  Though their time has passed, there is joy and honor to be celebrated from their journeys.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Little Girl Lost No More!

The Missing Childhood Likeness of Malla (Vigesaa) Larson

My concerted efforts as photo detective continue in the hope of teasing out the identities of more family members from unidentified stashes of the past.  The many photographic treasures that once belonged to my great grandparents, Ole Martin and Malla (Larson) Johnson and other family members, included several Victorian-era cabinet card albums and stacks of loose carte-de-visite images, as well as other assorted prints.  At first, the task of identification seemed daunting.  Some likenesses were easily recognizable, and fewer still were actually labeled on the back.  But, more often than not, a labeled photograph displayed the name of the recipient of the photograph, and not the subject--a common trap to be wary of during the photograph identification process.

I reasoned that somewhere among all of the family mementos, there had to be an image of my great grandmother, Malla (Vigesaa) Larson (1868-1948), as a young girl.  After all, she was the owner of much of the collection I have been trying to identify, and it seems unlikely that her parents would not have had an image or two taken of their youngest child at some point.  But, until recently, the earliest known photographs of Malla were taken around the time of her wedding in 1886, when she was 19 years old.  After cropping and enlarging the faces of many people among her old photograph collection, encouraged by a measure of success, I finally turned my attention to the little dark-haired girl on the carte-de-visite image shown below.  As soon as I zoomed in on the little face, I had that old familiar feeling:  "I know her!"

An unexpected find:  a photo of my great grandmother, Malla (Vigesaa) Larson, at age 5 or 6 (ca. 1874).  The original image is unlabeled except for the photographer's stamp on the verso.  A decorative frame has been added to the image for this post, which is not part of the original carte-de-visite.

What had not been apparent from the small card-like photograph became quite clear while observing the girl's face, zoomed in great detail.  I was immediately convinced that I had found the childhood photograph of my great grandmother, at last.  Everything matched:  the perfectly oval face; the large, clear blue eyes (left eye a little larger than the right); the deep brown, finely textured hair; a slight cleft in the chin (a Larson family trait); the shape of the eyebrows, nose, and ears, and more.  Even the dark, satiny dress with ruffles that she wore in the image was reminiscent of Malla's dark wedding dress with cascading ruffles down the front.  The two dresses look as if they could have been designed by the same seamstress--probably Malla's mother, Kjersten (Stroemstad) Larson.

Verso of the above photograph

I then investigated the photographers listed on the verso of the image.  Malla's family relocated from Coon Valley, Wisconsin to Chippewa County, Minnesota when Malla was a very young child, in about 1870, or shortly thereafter.  The location displayed on the photographers' stamp was a perfect match, since one of the nearest towns to the Larson farm in Chippewa County was Granite Falls.  But, when consulting the Directory of Minnesota Photographers on the Minnesota State Historical Society's website, I discovered a problem.  Olson and Steward (listed in the "Galleries and Studios" section), operated as a team in Granite Falls only between 1884-1886.  Malla was born in 1868, and the photograph of the little girl in question could not have been taken as late as 1884, when Malla would have been at least 16 years old.

Olson and Steward

     Address: Granite Falls, Minnesota
       Dates of operation: 1884-1886
Decades Worked in Minnesota: 1880s

But, hold on!  A photo detective does not give up that easily!

Further investigation into the individual members of the Olson and Steward team led me to believe that the carte-de-visite image of the little girl was still, indeed, my great grandmother, Malla, but that the image was a copy of an earlier image.

H. L. Olson was a Norwegian-born photographer who kept his own photography studio in Granite Falls, Minnesota from 1881-1883.  In fact, the images taken of Malla during her teen years (top row in the collage below, #3 and #4), were both taken by H. L. Olson.  His business partner from 1884-1886, C. A. Steward, kept his own studio in Granite Falls during 1886-1887, and often advertized that any image could be copied cheaply.  It is my opinion that Malla's parents arranged to get a copy (or copies) of her childhood photo in time for her marriage in February 1886.  If this were the case, then the carte-de-visite image of Malla at about age 6 was taken in about 1874 by an unknown photographer, and the original image was later copied and reproduced by Olson and Steward between the years of 1884-1886.  

Even with this logical assumption, I could not rest on my laurels and say beyond a shadow of a doubt that the photo was of Malla.  I had yet to consider that Malla's eldest daughter, Cora Johnson (Moen), was very similar in appearance to her mother.  I scrutinized a known photo of Cora as a toddler and compared it to photos of her as an adult, and compared them both to the probable image of young Malla in the dark dress.  Though many facial features were the same between the two little girls, I noticed a difference in the upper lip, in particular.  Cora had the same large blue eyes as her mother, but her upper lip was more curved, much like her father's side of the family.  Cora also had no cleft in her chin, unlike Malla.  In addition, Cora was a towhead at age 2-1/2, and it is unlikely that her hair would have changed from light blonde to dark brown in just 3 or 4 years.  Adding to the evidence was Cora's birth year.  She was born to Malla Larson Johnson in 1891, several years after Olson and Steward produced the carte-de-visite image of the little girl with the short dark hair.

Cora Johnson (Malla's eldest daughter), age 2-1/2.

Close-up of Malla Larson as a little girl, ca. 1874.

Cora Johnson Moen, at about age 40.

I was only completely satisfied that I had made the correct determinations after creating cropped close-ups of positively identified images of Malla from her adulthood, and then pairing them with cropped close-ups of "newly discovered' images taken during her early years.  The results are evident in the collage below, which shows Malla's development from about age 5 or 6 through her early forties, as the mother of ten healthy children.

Little Malla has been accounted for.  I hope that my many Johnson and Larson cousins will be as thrilled as I am!

(Click on photographs to enlarge).  This photo collage is of Malla (Larson) Johnson from childhood to middle age.  The bottom row of cropped facial shots are from positively-identified images of Malla that have been passed down through family members.  The top row consists of photos that I have recently identified as Malla from unmarked photographs collected through various family sources.  TOP ROW (left to right):  1) Malla Larson at age 5 or 6, Granite Falls, MN; 2) From a tin type photograph in a Johnson family album, ca. 1882; 3 & 4) Carte-de-visite photos taken at about the same age in Granite Falls, MN--note that she is wearing the same dress in both photos, but with different hairstyles, ca. 1881-83.  BOTTOM ROW (left to right):  5) Cropped image from Malla's marriage certificate with Ole M. Johnson in 1886; 6) Cropped image from wedding photograph with Ole M. Johnson in 1886; 7) Cropped image from Johnson family portrait, ca. 1907, Fosston, MN; 8) Cropped image from Johnson family portrait, ca. 1910, Fosston, MN.