Every picture…

The first things were the Social Security certificate and the will, and the 8 x 10 black & white photo of an older couple smiling broadly. Then the wallet contents, and the slip of paper, and the simple hand written words ‘Remember the Maine’.

20170525_122912Frank and Hattie Campbell

I was living in Milford Michigan in the early 1990’s and had just purchased my first house in the next town over in Highland. It was about 5 miles away and the easiest way to get from my apartment to my new house was the back way, down some dirt roads. I needed moving boxes… and there they were, professional moving boxes in a pile on the side of the road in front of a country house I could barely see from the road.

I pulled over in my minivan and quickly threw open my hatch and started to pitch the boxes inside. One had something in it. I quickly looked to see what appeared to be an old style leather doctors bag. A quick peak inside revealed a stack of letters bound with a piece of twine, photos, and papers. Hum, interesting, but I had to get moved so I threw the leather bag into the van and went on my way.

As I sat at my kitchen table some time later and pulled some of the letters from the envelopes, I began to realize that this was a mystery to solve. They were love letters written to an Ohio man at college by a woman also from Ohio. Upon further inspection I could tell, she was no average woman.

As I was able to discover over the years in my spare time, it all started with a middle aged English couple, George Alva Worthington and Hattie Hawbly, who immigrated to the Detroit area from Canada on the day the Maine sank in 1898. He became a photographer for the Dodge Brothers and was charged with photographing the Meadowbrook mansion as it was being built. It was the home of Matilda Dodge Wilson heiress of the Dodge motorcar fortune.

George passed away and his wife remarried the man in the 8 x 10 photo who was Frank Campbell. Frank died and when Hattie became ill and died, the remains of her estate where handed over to the nephew of Frank Campbell who was Herbert Brown Campbell. He had saved the love letters and went on to marry a different woman, Mildred Storer Shaw also from Ohio.

After a reasonably long life Mildred died of cancer with no children. Her husband HB Campbell, as he was known, a Harvard Landscape architect, then married again a younger woman from Milford with 2 grown daughters. He had met her through a cousin who was a veterinarian in Milford. It wasn’t a doctor bag at all. It was veterinarian bag. After HB died, and the second wife died, her two daughters took the stock certificates and the gold coins and set what was left of all of these people and the moving boxes onto the curb for the trash man. Then came I.

20170525_123634Frank & Hattie Campbell with Mildred and Herbert Brown Campbell.

This was quite a collection of stuff. The photos dated from Herbert’s birth around 1900 to the 1980’s when the last of them passed away. I had been able to find the daughter of the woman who wrote the love letters in St Louis, Betty Strong. Turns out her mother Claire had become a doctor in 1925 which was no small feat for a woman at that time. She married, had one child, Betty, and devoted her whole life to women’s health in St Louis as a gynecologist. Claire was the daughter of the editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer who had won a Pulitzer prize for his work in exposing the mob in Ohio in the 1920’s. She smoked and swore, and was quite a risque and liberated woman.

In these letters she spoke of a life of privilege. She swam, rode horseback, attended grand parties, and sent ol’ Herbert Brown Campbell every type of enticement she could quarry. Scented letters with pressed flowers and pieces of silk nightgowns. The letters told of her driving a car from Ohio to Michigan to see firsthand the biggest rivalry since the Michigan and Ohio boarders were agreed upon. I am referring to the Ohio State/University of Michigan football games. If you are from Michigan or Ohio this doesn’t need explaining. This was a side of her mother Betty in St Louis had never seen and she thanked me profusely for sending her the letters. She sent back pictures and news stories of her mothers life post Herbert B Campbell. I was happy to have done it.

After all of this ended, HB Campbell married a shy, quiet, Ohio State University nursing school grad named Mildred Storer Shaw and they traveled the country together while he landscaped many large building projects. He took his photography very seriously and produced some good quality photos of their travels. Many where of Mildred who appeared in most photos to be his most unwilling subject.

I could see as the photos went on, an aging Mildred with no children but who was the doting aunt to her sisters children. Then there were the photos of Mildred in her nursing uniform holding small children in her lap. I see sadness in her eyes. Then there’s the slip of paper in her hand writing found among the photos, ‘Cherish your friends, they are all you really have.’ I see her looking frail, and a angry even, holding a drink in her hand. It’s interesting what you can infer from photos.

The things I describe here are just the tip of the iceberg. There was so much more in that leather bag. I may know more about this bunch of people than I do know of my own family in some respects. This is also where I began to be interested in history, genealogy, and best of all, other peoples photos. In today’s world they are known as ‘Found Photos’. People sell them, collect them, trade them. The term ‘Found’ gives me a chuckle. It’s an art form of it’s own. It’s Americana. It’s everyday peoples lives and every picture has a story to tell.

Mildred, God bless her, wrote on the back of almost every picture. These are time capsules and almost all in black and white. I am interested in peoples lives. It’s art. I think if you really look at photos, you can see the life and the times in a fresh way. There is a soul to it. I am fascinated by it. Life is in the lens of the beholder. It’s all in the lighting. It’s the way I look at people in general. I look closely. People ask me why I would be interested in other peoples photos. There is a reverence to found photos and we are all but a passing light.