Old Friends

Old friends

Nearly forgotten


               A 114-year-old family photograph album is discovered by chance on eBay – and won – despite a last-minute challenge. 
              The album had never been considered lost or missing because no one in the family even knew of its existence. 
              Old Friends tells the story behind the pictures and then, with only names as a starting point, traces the lives of a dozen friends
              gathered at a house party in Beloit, Wisconsin, in the summer of 1898.



Ten years before the turn of the 19th century, my great-great grandfather, an octogenarian serial entrepreneur, traveled from his home in Creighton, Pennsylvania to Wyandotte, Michigan to lay the groundwork for a new company.

In the years following the Civil War, Capt. John B. Ford, a former box maker, iron manufacturer, and steamship builder, with his sons Edward and Emory, had founded a series of flat glass factories in Indiana and Kentucky. Ruined not once, but twice during the protracted international financial crisis of the 1870s, Captain Ford had rallied at Creighton, in Western Pennsylvania’s Allegheny River Valley. Backed by New York investors, in 1881 he established the New York Plate Glass Company, the world’s first plate glass factory to fuel its melting furnaces with locally produced natural gas. Two years later, in 1883, the Creighton glassworks became the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company.

In 1890, Captain Ford’s interest in Michigan, as it had been with previous manufacturing enterprises, was to find and control the supply of raw materials. This time he was after salt and limestone to produce soda ash, a key ingredient in the glassmaking process monopolized until then by one factory in the United States near Syracuse, New York. At Wyandotte Ford purchased 40 waterfront acres along the Detroit River with rich, subterranean salt deposits, and within the year he and his sons had laid the cornerstone for the Michigan Alkali Company.

Several years later, in 1898, the 87-year-old Captain Ford saw a profitable secondary use for this solution of salt brine and carbonized limestone, and launched yet another venture – the J.B. Ford Company – to produce and distribute a line of sodium-based consumer and industrial cleansing products. Over the next two decades, the company would wage an aggressive branding and marketing campaign for baking soda, lye, and sanitary cleansers that employed numerous advertising giveaways such as celluloid wallet calendars, copper key fobs and ashtrays, aluminum pocket combs, gold-etched highball glasses, and elegant brass letter openers – all sporting the company name and its distinctive logo, a fierce-looking Wyandotte Indian chief in deerskin breeches and full headdress with drawn bow and arrow.

These period branding gimmicks first came to my attention during an Internet search about four years ago for “J.B. Ford” hoping to discover more about his early steamboat operations in New Albany and Louisville and the ironclads he later built for the Union Army. Instead of historical information the search returned a link to an eBay listing for one of the antique brass letter openers. Thrilled with this unusual and unexpected find (and being the only bidder), I paid $5 for the brass relic, and nearly as much for postage. But I was hooked. Over the next couple of years, I found and bought half a dozen of these period letter openers to give to my children and siblings, as well as a handful of other J.B. Ford Co. ephemera including a rusty but colorful poster-sized tin sign with the stylized Wyandotte warrior chief.

In late January 2011 my monthly eBay search returned an entirely different and heart-stopping item: “1897-98 Photo Album Family of J.B. Ford Plate Glass King” the listing read in part, “…a ledger book with blank pages, patented 1888, containing 225 mounted vintage, original gelatin silver pictures taken by Stella D. Ford, granddaughter of John Baptiste Ford (1811-1903), generally known as ‘the father of the plate glass industry’ in the United States.” The auction was to end in five days.

I was staggered. Stella Dunbar Ford, Captain Ford’s youngest granddaughter, was my maternal grandmother. In 1897 she was 19. Here, for the world to see – and anyone to acquire for that matter – was her photo album. The album had never been considered lost or missing because no one in the family even knew of its existence.

As I read on, the questions were already racing through my head. How did something as special and sentimental as a photograph album ever leave my grandmother’s possession? Who had kept it all this time, and how did it end up on eBay? Roman artifacts still turn up in farmers’ fields, but what were the chances, I wondered, of such a family treasure surfacing – and being discovered randomly, in the space of a fleeting, five-day window of time – after being out of sight for more than a century?

The listing included clear scans of 16 photographs from the album, including the title page where the word “Photographs” and “Stella D. Ford” stood all alone, penned in the familiar handwriting I had seen on so many birthday cards and letters when I was young. For each of those 16 photos, the eBay seller had earnestly researched and provided additional information about the locations and subjects identified by my grandmother. Most of the images appeared to have been taken on a family camping vacation with my grandmother’s parents, siblings and friends – either posing with their catch of the day or seated on chairs drawn up in front of a large white tent; others were of cousins in Wyandotte; the remaining few were of various individuals in Davenport, Iowa, and Beloit, Wisconsin, including, much to my surprise, the last photograph described by the eBay seller in his listing as: “Stella in a buggy with Phil (?).” Phil I instantly knew to have been a friend, possibly a beau, and the author of more than two-dozen letters that would be written to my grandmother over the following decade. Now I had a rather mournful face to connect with Philip Rand of Salmon, Idaho, and the packet of faded letters that for several years had been sitting on a bookshelf in my office, tied with a piece of string.

I placed a starting bid of $50, assuming no one conceivably could have an interest in someone else’s family photo album, much less bid on it. Afraid I might jinx the transaction, I decided against mentioning to anyone the amazing find until it was safely in my hands. Within the hour, unable to suppress my excitement, I had shared the news with my 93-year-old mother. She, too, was astounded, never having seen or known of such an album of her mother’s from that era, and puzzled, like me, about how and why it had surfaced after all these years.

Five anxious days and fitful nights ensued fretting about someone or something thwarting the sale. On the last day with less than five minutes to go, I sat glued to my computer screen watching the digital timer tick down in red. Soon it was 50, 45, 40 seconds…then with only 30 seconds to go there was a flurry of activity. Two anonymous collectors began upping the bid in what is known to eBay cognoscenti as a “sniper” operation whereby a computer program automatically raises the bid faster than an individual can enter keystrokes to counter. I increased my bid to an insane amount to secure the album against this last-minute assault and watched the final computerized bids fly. The price soared as the time ran down to the wire. In the end, after nine frantic bids, it was mine – for $1,800.

I was ecstatic. I was also piqued at having paid such an astronomical price to retrieve something that had once belonged to my immediate family. On the other hand, I reasoned, it was the only way to gain an extraordinary glimpse into the past, and to keep it from disappearing again, forever. When I told my mother of the auction’s dramatic finale, she was over the moon, yet ever the matriarch, she insisted that it was her familial imperative to pay for the album. 

CATCH OF THE DAY Capt. Samuel L. Wood (left), The Rev. Dr. Allen H. Norcross, and Emory Low Ford (Papa) with their catch on a rainy day in July 1897 at the Iron City Fishing Club in Ontario, Canada.

When the seller contacted me via email, I inquired about the provenance of the album. All he could tell me was that he had bought it on eBay a few months earlier. “I do remember the seller from whom I purchased the album mentioned that it had come from a recent estate sale,” he wrote. As a 74-year-old living month-to-month on Social Security supplemented by his eBay sales, he was clearly very pleased about this windfall. “The high price of this item will be of great help,” he told me, “So much help that I am taking the day off eBay, as far as listing, to celebrate.” That is all I know about where the album had been for the past century and more. 

Two days later I had the binder. It was intact, but barely. Its once brown leather cover was now mostly a powdery, gray paperboard, its accordion-like cloth spine was completely exposed, and the delicate, pale brown pages were torn or crumbling; many were separated from the binding but miraculously in the proper order. The pictures themselves were in fine shape. Moreover, every single photograph had its carefully penned caption in my grandmother’s hand. As I sat in the post office parking lot, marveling at this fortuitous find, I was arrested by one particularly striking, black and white image of three men in rain-soaked oilskins, formal collars, and felt homburgs, standing before a canvas tent with a catch of 30 good-sized fish strung between three poles. The photo was loose on the page, having been removed by the eBay seller to scan for the teaser. The caption, penned in ink, had faded to sepia, but my grandmother’s distinctive hand was eminently legible and the same at 19 as it was at 95: “Capt. Wood, Dr. Norcross, Papa.” “Papa,” was her father, Emory Low Ford, rarely captured on photographic plates or film, but caught in that instant as a 51-year-old outdoorsman in the prime of his life. In less than three years he would be gone, the victim of a shipboard smallpox outbreak in the Mediterranean.

I drove straight to my parents’ house a few miles away to share this treasure with my mother. Still amazed at the unfolding of this fantastic turn of events, and then finally holding her mother’s album in her hands, she smiled and said: “Honestly, I don’t know how you find such things.”

A GOLDEN MOMENT Stella Dunbar Ford with canine friend at classmate Mary Wylie’s home in Davenport, Iowa, July 1898.

For the next week my mother pored over the pictures with a magnifying glass, pointing out specific images and familiar relatives while remarking again and again that never before had she seen a picture of her mother, her aunts, or uncle from before the turn of the century, nor did she know much about their lives at that time. “Other than the oft-repeated, romanticized stories about Captain Ford and the fortunes he made and lost,” she said, “like so many families, no one much talked about the past.”

My mother died two months later, in April 2011 after a long and wonderful life. Of all the special memories, few compare to sharing with her this totally serendipitous and priceless photographic history and her childlike delight in savoring one image in particular, of her mother, some 114 years earlier, appropriately curled up on a hammock with a golden retriever, my mother’s beloved breed.


The Back Story

FAMILIAR HANDWRITING The title page in my grandmother’s familiar hand with the same underlining that she would often employ for emphasis in letters and cards over the next seven decades.

Restoring 225 faded and age-splotched photos is a time consuming and painstaking process and it is several months before I am able to return to the album and complete the scanning and retouching of each image, page by brittle page. When the task is finished I realize I have little more than what I started with – a turn-of-the-century glimpse into my grandmother’s life, albeit in a digitized form. Granted, the pictures have been preserved and can now be readily shared with my family, and that was the original intent.

At the same time the photographs have opened up a whole new window on a previously unknown period of my grandmother’s life and I feel compelled to connect the dots, to find out more about where the pictures had been taken – where she had lived, and played, and been schooled – and ultimately to be able to tell the back story to this remarkable photographic record. So I start again, from the beginning.

Allegheny City

The photographs are carefully organized, identified, and glued onto the pages of the binder, starting with a handful taken in the spring of 1897 under the heading “at home” which was in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, a fashionable residential district on Pittsburgh’s north side near the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers.

The area was originally the preserve of the Shawnee and Delaware Indians and was bisected by an important hunting and trading trail for the tribes of the Upper Ohio Valley. In the wave of western migration that followed the War of Independence the land was either taken from the Indians in a series of treaties, or claimed by the United States and given out as land grants to former soldiers of the Continental Line in payment for their wartime service. The city was surveyed in 1787, streets were eventually laid out around a 100-acre grazing commons, and landowners began building houses in the mid-1840s. By the late 1800s Allegheny City had become home to many of Pittsburgh’s millionaire coal, steel, and glass industrialists and some of the region’s grandest mansions were built on Ridge Avenue, also known as “Millionaires’ Row.”

In the pictures, Stella, identified by her initials, “SDF,” her sister Nell, and several girlfriends strike various poses in the side yard of the family’s large Italianate house, each girl with a dance card pinned to the bodice of her party dress.

The three-storied redbrick house at 508 West North Avenue with its rear stable was built in 1858 for Joseph W. Spencer, a wealthy Pittsburgh dry-goods merchant who lived there until 1866. Subsequent owners included David McCandless, a banker and business partner of Andrew Carnegie, and David M. Smith, a steel manufacturer. Stella’s parents bought the home in April 1889 when she was 11. The family left Allegheny City in October 1900 and the house sat unoccupied until 1904 when it was sold to Pittsburgh attorney William A. Stone, a four-term United States Congressman and Pennsylvania’s 22nd governor from 1899-1903. In 1914 the Fleischmann Yeast Company purchased the residence and converted it into a storage and distribution warehouse; a few years later, the property was acquired by the United States Casket Company and a two-story warehouse was added in the 170-ft. long side yard that had once served as the backdrop for my grandmother’s first snapshots.

Iron City Fishing Club

The next few pages of photographs, including the marvelous image of “Papa” Ford and his fishing companions, follow Stella’s heading: “In Camp. 1897.” Among the more than two dozen pictures of camp life in a sea of white canvas tents and wooden boardwalks, the rocky shoreline, and a visit to a nearby Indian village (where Stella photographs an Indian squaw and her papoose), the only clue to its location is a photograph of rowing skiffs tied gunwale-to-gunwale at a narrow, makeshift dock, with the clearly visible words “IRON CITY CLUB” stenciled on their bows.

The Iron City Fishing Club was founded in 1882 by a group of prominent Methodist ministers and businessmen from Pittsburgh who had read a brief account of a particularly successful fishing trip to Ontario’s Lake Sparrow and the lower Severn River made the previous year by the Rev. Dr. W.F. Day, pastor of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Dr. Day’s story, entitled “A Canadian Fishing Excursion” appeared in the Pittsburgh Christian Advocate in September 1881 and inspired the Pittsburgh group to organize and fund a similar fishing expedition to Georgian Bay.

The following year ladies were welcomed to the club. Each year thereafter, as the Iron City Fishing Club grew, the members would choose one of three or four different encampments in Georgian Bay or Lake Huron and haul their fishing tackle, provisions, and gear by train and chartered tugboat for a week or so of primitive camping and fishing for pickerel, black bass, blue catfish, pike, and muscallonge. The evenings were spent around a huge campfire with songs, storytelling, and playacting. A regular sermon was offered on Sundays.

Judging by Stella’s pictures of friends and relatives in odd costumes and clownish poses, this is still the case in the summer of 1897, the family’s tenth year in camp, when the club is encamped at Go Home Bay. Stella’s older brother, Emory “Leyden” Ford, leads most of the high jinks, creating a human pyramid and other gymnastic feats with friends and at one point appears in a long dress and bonnet. Equally silly in their posing for Stella’s camera are Carolyn and Fanny Pitcairn, whose father, Artemus Pitcairn, was the treasurer of Pittsburgh Plate Glass. The Sunday service that year is very likely delivered by The Rev. Dr. Allen H. Norcross, the bearded fisherman standing next to “Papa” Ford and Capt. Samuel L. Wood, a Pittsburgh coal operator and one of the Iron City Fishing Club’s founders (and treasurer).

Although ostensibly roughing it in the wilds of Georgian Bay, sleeping three to five people in canvas tents on bunks of rough lumber and ticks filled with straw, the Iron City Fishing Club was not entirely removed from civilization as attested to by Stella’s pictures of “The Crowd” a group of well-dressed Iron City Fishing Club members, disembarking from The Voyageur, the club’s chartered tug, in front of an elegant wooden hotel. From a map of Georgian Bay I am able to pinpoint and finally decipher “Penetanguishene” (and understandably, forgive my grandmother for the only ink-splotched, illegible caption in the album) as the nearby town with its grand summer hotel. Penetanguishene is an Abinaki name for “the place of the rolling white sands.” The luxurious 150-room Hotel Penetanguishene was opened in 1899 on 15 acres of waterfront property and served fine meals to the club’s members until it burned to the ground in 1915. Today it is the site of Huronia Park and a public beach.

Mount Vernon Seminary

From the summer sojourn in Georgian Bay the focus shifts to a sequence of images at “MVS,” Stella’s abbreviation for Mt. Vernon Seminary, a serious and highly respected finishing school for young ladies in Washington, D.C.

With the exception of three or four slightly blurry interior shots of Miss Bingham, a beloved teacher (who died in April 1898), all the pictures at Mount Vernon Seminary are taken outdoors with classmates posed, mostly in groups, and often with some of their younger classmates, on the school’s newly constructed tennis and basketball court. In May 1898, two weeks before the girls’ graduation, a series of images shows Stella, Alice Adams, Marie Wilson, May Niederinghaus, and other girlfriends in straw boaters and long dresses enjoying a “Barge Party,” the school’s annual picnic organized by Mrs. Somers aboard a mule yacht, a shallow-draft canal boat pulled along a towpath of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, not far from Georgetown.

Mt. Vernon Seminary was the inspiration of Elizabeth Jane Eddy, a well-educated, 25-year-old teacher from Indiana who had moved to Washington, D.C. in the winter of 1862 to marry James W. Somers, a young lawyer from Springfield, Illinois, and boyhood friend of President Abraham Lincoln. After teaching at a small day school during the first few years of their marriage in the war-ravaged city, and with many secondary schools closed or abandoned, Mrs. Somers soon began taking pupils into their home for private tutoring in grammar, math, science, history, art history, and literature.

In 1868 she was asked to help prepare three daughters of a close friend for entrance to Vassar College. As word spread of this first success among the well-heeled intellectuals and professionals in the Somers’ post-war Washington social circle – where options were limited for private schooling – more sons and daughters were sent to Miss Somers’ School for pre-college education and by 1875, she had established a rigorous two-year college preparatory school for young women only, and renamed it Mt. Vernon Seminary after Mount Vernon Methodist Place Church in Baltimore, built by her brother, Dr. Thomas Eddy.

Stella had followed her elder sister, Nellie (’92), to Mount Vernon Seminary in September 1896, taking a series of required college preperatory classes in arithmetic, geography, U.S. history, English history, and advanced grammar. One of the class highlights of that first year, according to the Mount Vernon Seminary Record, was the “novel pleasure on February sixth of being presented to two ‘queens.’ First to Mrs. [Grover] Cleveland, the acknowledged queen of America, and later to the [recently deposed] Queen Liliokualani of Hawaii,” who was visiting Washington. In March the school had secured a large room with several windows and a large balcony overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue to watch the innaugural parade for President William McKinley who had defeated William Jennings Bryan in the 1896 presidential election.

When Stella and her seven senior classmates returned to the M Street campus in September 1897 to begin their 38-week school year, less than a mile away, President McKinley was already sixth months into his first term in the White House; a yellow fever epidemic was ravaging New Orleans; and daily reports of famine, atrocities, and bloody battles between Cuban rebels and Spain’s military presaged a Spanish-American conflict in the coming year.

Mt. Vernon Seminary in its nearly 20 years as a boarding school had enrolled students from nearly every state and several foreign countries and had earned a fine “national reputation for the knowledge, culture, and social skills of its graduates,” according to Nina Mikhalevsky, author of Dear Daughters, a history of Mt. Vernon Seminary. To graduate, she adds, “the students were expected to take mathematics through trigonometry, Latin through Cicero, three years of intensive French language, and read the canonical works of English and American literature.” Senior Essays, involving primary research on current social or political issues were also required of graduating students, and were read at Commencement where prizes were awarded for the best papers.

One of Mt. Vernon’s most popular teachers was Sarah Amelia Scull, writes Dr. Mikhalevsky in her history of the school, who in addition to teaching literature, history, Greek Art and Mythology, was “an avid photographer… She traveled to Greece and Italy many times and took hundreds of photographs throughout the 1880s and ‘90s. Her photographs of Greek and Roman art and architecture were eventually exhibited and won several medals, including one at the World’s Colombian Exposition [in Chicago, in 1893]. She inspired her students to take up photography, which became a passionate interest throughout the school.” Documenting their lives in great detail was an important “part of the culture of education at that time, and especially of the female culture at Mount Vernon and the other seminaries,” Dr. Mikhalevsky says.

Photography at Mount Vernon Seminary

The introduction to amateur photography couldn’t have been timelier for Stella and the other young women at Mt. Vernon Seminary as the medium had entered a new era during the 1890s with the increasing availability of relatively inexpensive Kodak box cameras, including innovative new features that greatly simplified the process of taking pictures. The most radical development in the advent of photography during that decade was the technological evolution from glass plate negatives to spools of film (loaded into the camera in a dark room) to daylight film rolls that could be loaded anywhere. This technological milestone meant that people with very little knowledge of photography could take snapshots without worrying about the chemical process or having to fuss with shipping the camera back to the factory to have the prints developed and the camera reloaded. And it soon became the fashion among the upper middle class in the United States and abroad to carry these small, portable cameras on informal visits to family and friends, recording everyday life much the way the Kodak Instamatic would once again popularize snapshot photography in the early 1960s, or the ubiquitous cellphone of today that captures millions of video and still images – of everything from self portraits to political protest – and shares them over the Internet via social media sites like Instagram.

The first prints in my grandmother’s album, taken at the Iron City Fishing Club in the summer of 1897, measure 4 x 5 inches and are very likely taken with a Boston Bulls-Eye, a camera produced by the Boston Camera Manufacturing Company. The leather-covered wooden box camera cost $15 and came with an instruction book and one lightproof, 12-exposure film roll. Eastman Kodak took over the Boston Mfg. Co. and continued marketing the camera as the Kodak No. 4 Bulls-Eye. By the spring of 1898, Stella appears to have graduated to a new camera, a No. 2 Bull’s-Eye box camera, a popular, $8 leather-covered wood model introduced in 1895 by George Eastman also with the novel, 12-exposure, daylight film spools that took 3 ½ x 3 ½-inch square images. This was the first camera to incorporate a small red viewing window (to prevent daylight from fogging the film) to read the exposure number on the film backing, and included shutter instant and Time (for long exposures), and a three-stop aperture.

Sadly, there are no photographs of Mount Vernon’s 1898 commencement exercises that took place on Tuesday, May 31st at the Luther Place Memorial church, on Vermont Avenue, just a few blocks from school. The Times (Washington) the following day described the evening ceremony as “a most delightful and interesting occasion…attended by a fashionable audience which taxed the seating capacity of the church.

“The decorations were profuse and exquisite,” the society writer continued, “the stage from which the fair young graduates made their bows was literally banked with flowers. The choir loft, too, was tastefully decorated while around the chancel rail of the pulpit was a wealth of beautiful palms.

“The members of the graduating class, eight in number, dressed in black college gowns and mortarboard caps were seated on the stage. They were Alice Montgomerie Adams, Chicago, Ill.; Maude Evolyn Deterding, Taylorville, Ill.; Susan Hurd Elmore, Astoria, Ore.; Stella Dunbar Ford, Allegheny, Pa.; Florence Louise Mixter, Rock Island, Ill.; Florence Isabel Polkinhorn, Washington, D.C.; Helen Clara Slater, Washington, D.C.; and Mary Ellen Wylie, Davenport, Iowa.

“On the stage with the graduates were the Rev. Dr. Teunis S. Hamlin, D.D., pastor of the Church of the Covenant, and the Rev. Frank M. Bristol, of the Metropolitan M.E. Church.

“The music in choruses during the evening was rendered by a choir of twenty-five young ladies, students at the Mount Vernon Seminary, with Mr. Josef Kaspar as musical director…”

From the sequence of photos in the album, it appears that Stella returns to the Ford home in Allegheny City for a month or so before taking the train west to visit Mary Wylie’s family and friends in Davenport, a post-graduation trip that must have been hatched in the spring by Stella and her closest friends, Alice Adams and Mary Wylie.


Hiram Cable Wylie, a recent graduate of the elite Philips Andover Academy in Andover, Massachusetts – Mary Wylie’s elder brother – is Stella’s first subject as he sits on the porch railing of his parents’ Davenport home. Stella in turn poses on the front steps and in the hammock with the Wylie’s golden retriever curled up next to her.

That week, Stella was one of four Mount Vernon Seminary schoolmates to stay with Mary Wylie’s family and take part in all manner of entertainments arranged for them by Davenport friends, beginning with a boat trip across the Rock River in lumber merchant James E. Lindsay’s launch “Lotus” to a picnic in the cornfields, followed later in the week by a series of festive dinner parties.

These dinners, as reported on the front page of the Davenport Sunday Leader of July 10, 1898, were held:

 “in honor of Miss Fletcher and Miss [Marie] Wilson of Evanston, Ill., Miss Ford of Pittsburg, Pa., and Miss [Helen] Palmer of New York, who have been the guests of Miss Wylie. Two of these were dinner parties given by Miss Wylie, one at her beautiful home on Brady Street in this city, and the other at Black Hawk’s Watch Tower. The former of these occurred last Tuesday evening.

“There were quite a number of the young people, friends of the hostess present. Supper was served at 7:30 o’clock and following it the evening was delightfully spent in social intercourse until 10:30 o’clock.”

On Thursday evening Hiram Wylie and chum George Middleton, capitalizing on the presence of several charming young ladies from the East, and wishing to impress their out-of-town guests, threw a festive dinner dance at Black Hawk’s Watch Tower Inn (named for the Sauk war chief), on Rock Island, between the Rock River and the Mississippi.

The Inn, noted for its fine dining, was a three-story salmon-colored building with a double veranda for dining and dancing overlooking the river. That night the Wylie party’s menu no doubt included such delicacies as baked Columbia River salmon and roast blue-wing teal duck.

A box in the same edition of the Davenport Daily Leader reports Hiram and George’s party to be quite the success:

“There were some thirty in attendance. Supper was served [at 8 o’clock] in the private dining halls on the second floor three of which, connected by large folding doors, were thrown open [to the veranda]. The tables were beautifully decorated and Mine Host McHugh did himself proud… at 9:30 o’clock the dance program was commenced. Petersen’s orchestra furnished the music for dancing. The costumes of the young ladies were very catching and pretty and the Inn presented a very gay appearance. The dancing lasted until 1 o’clock… The evening at the Tower was delightfully spent and later the party returned to this city by private car.”

Before leaving with Mary Wylie for Beloit at the end of the week, Stella photographs the dashing, older university men George and Hiram as they sit in a horse-drawn buggy pulled up in front of the Wylies’ home, a large, white Victorian house with a wide porch fronting on Brady Street at the corner of Fourteenth.

On to Beloit

From Davenport, the girls continue by train to Beloit, Wisconsin and a gathering of Davenport and Chicago friends at “The Grange,” the Adams’ large farm north of town. This was the second year in a row that the Adams would entertain some of Alice’s friends for a long summer weekend.

The sleepy college town of Beloit, Wisconsin, at the confluence of the Rock River and Turtle Creek near the Illinois border seems an odd choice for the second home of a wealthy Chicago family when most of society summered at fashionable lakeside resorts of Harbor Point, Mackinac Island, or Lake Charlevoix in Northern Michigan. However, the Adams family’s roots grew deep in Beloit, through Ella Hackett Adams, Alice’s mother, who had inherited large tracts of land from her father, John Hackett, the son-in-law of Caleb Blodgett, Beloit’s founder. Hackett senior was a well-educated and prosperous grocer, the city’s first postmaster, one of its first mayors and a state legislator. In addition to the valuable land holdings along the west side of the Rock River, he owned a flourmill and two paper mills.

After John Hackett’s death in 1887, the Adams family presented to the city a large granite memorial fountain bearing Hackett’s name “as a public drinking place for man and beast” at the junction of Fourth St. and Grand Avenue in the downtown marketplace. (In 1930 the fountain was moved three blocks east to Field Park near the high school – the site of Hackett’s original home – where it was sunk into the ground and made into an ornamental bird bath).

So it was back to Beloit that the Adams family traveled each summer and to the large home surrounded by wide lawns and fruit orchards on the bluffs above the Rock River, a mile north of the city.

Alice Adams, who missed the festivities in Davenport, had stayed on for two weeks in Washington after the girls’ graduation and spent another week at home in Chicago before heading north to Beloit in late June with her three brothers John, Le Baron, and Laurence. So she is at the Beloit train depot to meet Stella, Mary Wylie, and her brother, Hiram when they arrive after the 150-mile trip upriver from Davenport on the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad.

Alice’s parents, John and Ella Hackett Adams had also invited to the July house party at The Grange several of Alice’s friends from Chicago including Helen Shepard, Arthur Goodwillie, Dudley Wilkinson, Lewis Bement, Philip Rand (his second year in a row), Spencer Brown, Nanine Waller, and her brother Trigg.

Alice and her nattily dressed house guests, as captured by Stella’s camera, pose alone, in pairs, and as a group on the steps of The Grange; on a sunny afternoon they appear with tennis racquets, golf clubs, and a large softball and bat in the Adams’ large backyard. One evening Stella photographs several of the friends casually draped across each other on the living room sofa.

Old friends

As I look more closely at my grandmother’s photographs in Davenport and Beloit, and focus on the images of people gathered in front of the family homes, on picnics, in horse-drawn carriages and on boats, I discover that I am increasingly being distracted by the names and faces of this new group of young friends.

The album at this point seems far more than a simple record of a summer trip to the Midwest in the Gay Nineties. It’s literally a collective snapshot from a moment in time; a charmed circle of friends poised to launch their respective life journeys into the dawn of the 20th century.

Most, if not all the friends that appear in the pictures from Davenport and Beloit, in attire and by mutual association, already assume a certain level of privilege, education, social graces, and enthusiasm. Yet looking at their young, cheerful, unlined features, I wonder what awaits them in the next century. Who among them, for example, will go on to university? Will they see each other again or stay in touch? Are they soon about to fall in love, marry, and raise families, divorce and possibly start all over? Will they weather the Great Depression or will they lose all? Will they become famous, scandalous, or simply disappear without a trace? Is there a foreign war or intrigue in their future? What, if any, will be their respective contributions to society after this summer idyll of 1898?

Unlike the ubiquitous flea-market photographs of anonymous 19th century gentry with stiff, deer-in-the-headlight stares into the camera lens, my grandmother has left me clues. Thanks to her assiduous captioning I have names to go with faces like the enigmatic Phil Rand and the lovely Alice Adams. She has provided this invaluable forensic key – not only to her own previously obscured home life, education, and travels – but now, too, to those of her friends, well beyond the images frozen in time in the golden summer light of 1898.

A name is all that is needed to begin ferreting out nuggets of information from newspaper archives, libraries, genealogical societies, vital records, census reports, city directories, and in some instances, even the rare descendent. Then, like the outer edge pieces of a wooden jigsaw puzzle carefully placed in the correct chronological positions, these random snippets reveal for some the full picture of a remarkable life; and for others, dealt an unfortunate hand by adversity – or worse, cut short in their prime – at least the basic outlines of a life history that until now, time has tried to erase.

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