Every once in a while, I wander through an antique shop or flea market. Sometimes, I sift through stacks of old photographs or documents to see if I might get some clues as to their history. Often I will find a name scribbled on the back, or a location or studio name on the front. With enough information, I know I have a reasonable shot at figuring out who is in the photo. That means I have a reasonable shot at returning it to a family member who might be very grateful.
Such was the case on November 8, 2014 when I was taking photographs at Schnepf Farms in Queen Creek, Arizona during their Antique Tractor show. I stumbled upon this very scene and took a picture for a class assignment.
The photo as I found it
As I was standing there, the photo on the top spoke to me. What a lovely image! A young couple, dressed very nicely, with striking features. I turned the photo over to find very light pencil marks with “John & Cecelia Gatewood” inscribed. You really had to shift the photo back and forth in the light to see the pencil. I almost didn’t see it at all. On the front of the photo, I could see clearly the photo was taken in Hays, Kansas.
I decided to take a chance and buy the photo. The dealer was asking for $5.00. I didn’t even haggle with him. After paying for the photo, I asked him if had other photos from the same family. He didn’t know. I asked him if he knew where the photo may have been acquired. He didn’t know. The only thing he could offer was that he got photos from “all over the place.” That was all I could find out about it.
How did this photo of this lovely couple from Kansas end up in Arizona? We still don’t know. We probably never will.
After some funny looks from my friends, who surely thought I was nuts, I packed my photo away in my camera bag and continued on with my assignment. Once I returned home, I started my hunt for the Gatewood family.
John and Cecelia Gatewood circa 1925
Ancestry.com made my search easy. All I did was put in “John Gatewood” from “Hays, Kansas” with a wife of “Cecelia” and I quickly discovered their 1930 and 1940 US Census records. I knew right away that the family moved to California from Kansas, and that they had their first son in California in 1926. That dated this photo circa 1925, which seemed correct to me based on the style of the frame and their clothing.
From the 1940 Census, I knew the couple had two children named Howard and Ronald. With the new information that they had lived in California, I used FindaGrave.com to locate the only John Gatewood buried in California. Find a Grave confirmed that he had a child named Howard, and his wife Cecelia was buried in the same cemetery.
After less than 5 minutes of searching, I was confident that I had a photo of this couple:
John Howard Gatewood
Birth: Mar. 19, 1897 Kansas, USA
Death: Jan. 9, 1970 Bell, California, USA
Cecilia Groff Gatewood
Birth: Apr. 19, 1899 Kansas, USA
Death: Oct. 10, 1977 Los Angeles County, California, USA
Now, it was time to find somebody who cared. I used what I had learned about the couple to search in Ancestry’s member family trees. I easily found two members, Cynthia and Robin, who both had accurate details about this couple in their trees. I wrote to both of them and sat back to await a response.
Cynthia wrote me back the same day. She was Howard’s daughter, so John and Cecelia were her grandparents! I sent her a scan of the portrait and asked if she wanted it. She confirmed that this was in fact her grandparents, and she had never seen the photo before. I think she was a little hesitant at first. Who gives something for nothing nowadays? I assured her I didn’t want anything from her in return. After receiving her address, I mailed her the portrait. She was delighted! She said she plans to bring the portrait to Thanksgiving dinner this year and tell her family the whole story.
Robin responded a few days later. Cecelia was her great aunt! I was able to explain the whole story and put her in touch with Cynthia. I also sent her a high resolution scan of the portrait for her research. It was the first time she had ever seen a photo of Cecelia before.
Success! I am thrilled that I was able to reunite this beautiful portrait with its original family. I hope this story inspires you to do something special to help someone today. You never know what kind of impact your kindness may have on others.