News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion

September 14, 2013

RONN MOTT: Images — and memories — from long, long ago

My Aunt Etha, a resident of Hillsdale most of her adult life, lived to be 93. She was married at least 50 years to her husband, Pearl Jackson, who was a railroad man.  

My aunt didn’t have any children of her own, so she took a deep and special interest in her nieces and nephews. Her younger sister, my Aunt Esther, died in her 40s and left a 10-year-old daughter, who Etha would raise to adulthood. She followed the rest of us like a grandparent … pride in our accomplishments, to be there in an understanding role when our young failures would pop up.

My father was her younger brother, and while Dad’s lifestyle and marriages did not always meet with her approval, Aunt Etha was always there for him and his children.  

My brother and I would often spend weeks in Hillsdale, especially in the summertime. It was often magical. She had an orange drink that was really good, and I especially liked it. I was just about to go out on my own — Air Force, job, etc. — when I found out the drink was orange-flavored Kool-Aid, available everywhere for a few cents. The difference was the well water my Aunt Etha used in Hillsdale. Not exactly magic, but it was certainly a great deal different than the city water I was used to drinking.  

Since my father’s death, I came in full possession of my Aunt Etha’s pictures. The tragedy is many of them belonged to my grandmother. The bigger tragedy is a great many of these pictures are unidentified people … relatives, mostly, but friends and neighbors as well. And I don’t have a clue as to who they are.  

Most of the pictures were taken in a studio from the towns where most of these people farmed. The majority are from the J.R. Swain Studio in Dana, the J. O. Peacock in Rockville and the Reynolds Studio in Rockville. I suspect these places have been gone a long time because most of these are turn-of-the-century pictures.

But in the scramble of all of these photos, I found one of my dad when he was a little boy, and some of my grandparents as young adults. And in all of this is a picture of Company C Fortieth Infantry, taken at Camp Sherman, Ohio, sometime between 1917 and 1918. The only identification out of these 108 soldiers, all uniformed for the era of World War I, was one that was underlined and said, “Bill.” I don’t know who that person is. Then, going through a scrap book of my Aunt Etha’s, with all the pictures all nicely glued down, was one picture of a World War I soldier not identified.   

I know I’ve been guilty of this myself, but I have to say most of the pictures are unidentified, so even though we’re locked in the cyber age, please identify the photographs no matter where they may be. Someone, somewhere, will be like this writer and not have a single clue as to who the people are he is gazing upon.

It was nice seeing my dad and my Uncle Everett up on the seat of a great, big wagon. My Uncle Everett must have been in his late teens, my father 10 or 11 years old. Pictures of my Aunt Etha as a young woman, pictures of my grandparents with children and other relatives I have never seen before. You know how old the pictures are because the main transportation in all of these is horses and buggies and wagons … a much slower time in America.

I’m going to share these pictures with my cousin, Juanita, because she lived on the farm with my grandparents and her father and mother. At an early age, she pitched in and worked like a regular hand. I know she is going to enjoy these pictures.

I owe my Aunt Etha a lot for things I never had time to set right with her. She left all of her nephews and nieces a lump sum of money we received after her death, and it was too late to say “thank you.” This treasure trove of turn-of-the-century Americana, part of my history, is just another something I owe Aunt Etha … perhaps God can add it to my IOU. Thanks, Aunt Etha.

Ronn Mott, a longtime radio personality in Terre Haute, writes commentaries for the Tribune-Star. His pieces are published online Tuesday and Thursday on Tribstar.com, and in the print and online editions on Saturday.

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