Identify old family photos with a little detective work

Texas Centennial in 1936: guest columnist Allene Mandry’s grandfather Oscar Saunders and his second wife, Ruth, with Eleanor Stubitz, whose specialty was Mae West impersonations, and Johnny Leal, who went on to be one of the munchkins in “The Wizard of Oz.”

We’ve all heard the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. But, unlike a picture, a 100-year-old photo often means nothing to the viewer. Its thousand words have been lost to time.

I’ve been faced with a monumental task. My cousin Acree Carlisle Jr.’s daughter Suzanne recently sent me over 200 old photos to identify, photos which she found in two large envelopes among her dad’s belongings. Her dad, known as Buster to Uvaldeans, died in 2016. No doubt, he inherited these photos from his mother, who was born in 1908.

Some photos were torn from album pages with the black backing still on them and others were loose, offering no context whatever. Suzanne’s grandmother Edith Saunders Carlisle was my dad’s sister, so we do share some Saunders relatives, but some were Carlisle family photos and others were completely puzzling. Acree grew up in Uvalde, and I lived in both Knippa and later Uvalde, so that was common ground.

During these strange times, we all seem to have extra time on our hands, so, armed with a magnifying glass, a jeweler’s lupe, and sticky notes, I set to work. Alas, the majority of loose photos had no name on the back. For others, I meticulously peeled away the black album material to see if there were any identifying clues: perhaps a date, a name, or the name of a photography studio.

Some photos appeared to have been taken with the same camera or developed at the same studio because of the frame design around the photo. That helped group photos. There were several with the name Joe Raba Photography, Uvalde, Texas, on the back, so that gave me a time frame to look at as Raba was in Uvalde around 1930 before moving to San Antonio. Others bore Oklahoma on the back, so those were neither Saunders or Carlisle photos. However, my grandfather’s second wife was from Oklahoma.

In family group photos, ages of the children were approximated and identities were determined.  With my magnifying glass or jeweler’s lupe, the stance of people and their facial features were studied: perhaps unusual ears or a big nose; the shape of the eyes; a habit of crossing one’s arms; a part in one’s hair; the shape of one’s legs; or the curliness of one’s hair. My grandfather, a really tall man, always stood with his arms behind his back. All these gave hints to identifying deceased family members.

I studied the style of dress. Was it a special or casual occasion? When was that style popular?  I studied the backgrounds. Were there certain kinds of trees? Particular houses which appeared over and over in photos or porches, windows, or doors that identified places from my memory? Geographic features common or not common to the area where my family lived? Possible wording on a sign or building? All these details helped determine a time and a place.

The most intriguing photo was one of my grandfather and his second wife Ruth. It was definitely Grandpa because of the way he stood, and he always wore khakis and a hat. But who were those two “little people” standing in front of them? On the back of the photo was written, “Eleanor Stubitz, Good Luck!” Ancestry.com yielded no clues, so I Googled Eleanor Stubitz and “Voilà!” Eleanor Stubitz was a famous little person whose specialty was Mae West impersonations; her boyfriend Johnny Leal was a Will Rogers impersonator. Unfortunately, they were in a serious car accident during the 1936 Texas Centennial and Eleanor was killed, but Johnny went on to be one of the munchkins in “The Wizard of Oz.” I knew that Grandpa, a bee man, often attended state fairs and celebrations to take his Uvalde honey to competition, so the date and the occasion of the photo were solved!

Seven children posing around a 1921 Ford touring car: while investigating this photo, guest columnist Allene Mandry realized it depicts her father and his siblings.

Another photo which interested me was of a flooded river. Being that my grandfather’s family lived near Knippa, it had to be one of the rare instances when the Frio flooded. It took an hour to carefully peel back the photo from what was left of the album page and there was a year: 1919. In that year in September and October, Uvalde County received a combined total of 14 inches of rain, and the Frio went on a rise.

Another photo was that of an old car with three little girls sitting on the running board, three boys inside the car, and a fourth standing to the right of the car. Research determined that the vehicle was a 1921 Ford touring car. It suddenly occurred to me that this was my grandfather’s car and the seven children were all his children, one being my dad. The year and the ages of the children fit.

So take some time to go through those old photos and try to discover the identities and the stories captured there. Don’t let them be lost forever to posterity or end up in a flea market. You may be the last person in the family who can resurrect these moments in your family history.

Allene Mandry was born in Uvalde where she attended elementary school before moving to San Antonio. Now a retired teacher, she has a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Education from Trinity University. She spends her time doing genealogy research and giving presentations on genealogy. Mandry and her husband, Arthur, live on a ranch near Camp Verde.

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