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Old Photographs

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

In a battered shoe box from the attic of my mother's estate I discovered a faded sepia photograph identified only by the fancy silver stamp of a studio in Clinton, Iowa.

The photograph is a stiff family portrait taken in what is presumably the formal parlor of a home. The family is framed by the entryway to the parlor. In typical late-19th century style, the bearded man is seated in a chair looking straight at the camera. A woman—his wife?—is standing to one side and slightly behind the man, one hand placed on his shoulder. There is another woman to her right—an unmarried sister? And two girls dressed in pinafores and smaller boy dressed like Little Lord Fauntleroy, looking to one side of the camera lens. Sun is streaming in from the left window. What time of year is it? What’s the occasion of the photograph?

I assume they are distant relatives of mine or they would not have ended up in the shoe box with a hundred other mute figures. I know that several members of my mother's family emigrated to Clinton to work in the sawmills. There are hints in old family letters of fights and arrests. But nothing more. As with all photographs, the real story lies outside the edges of the picture.

My mother spent her life as a history teacher. Why did she not pencil in the names of these relatives. A date. A note as to who they were? It's a mistake we all make to think that history is the story of important people—Columbus, Ben Franklin, General Grant—and of great events. The Scott Foresman history text she used in class had no rafts men, no farmers, no doings of housewives in it. And so, most of us know about the Civil War and 1492, and 1066. What we don't know is how a family spent a typical day in Lansing, Iowa, in 1870. What did they have for breakfast? How long did the wash take that Monday? We cannot take the pulse of their everyday lives.

Now, it's too late for me and my shoebox of photographs. The family in the parlor will remain strangers with untold stories. Don't let it happen to you. Identify the snapshots you take, tell the story in pencil on the back. Don't end up nameless in a shoebox.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.