If you’ve spent any time researching ancestors, or the history of your town, or even history in general, you’ve likely come across old group photographs. A workplace outing from long ago, an annual gathering of some institution or society, or maybe a family gathering. If you’ve stared into the faces of those who gathered for the photograph, you’ll likely come across a familiar face of a grandparent or long-lost cousin and you’ll soon determine the likely connection that brought the photograph into your collection. Sometimes, old group photographs provide a wealth of insight into your ancestors’ lives; sometimes, they create more questions. Often, they do both.
The mystery you didn’t know you had
Sometimes, you get lucky. Sometimes, someone made the effort to identify the people in your old group photos. And, sometimes, yes, they were wrong. Among the photographs I inherited from my grandmother was this one, showing a group of school age children, with their teacher, outside their school. On the back of this photograph, someone helpfully wrote that this photo showed my grandmother’s Colburn School class. Given that she was born in 1904, that would date this photograph to about 1910-1912. And, so it became family lore. It was perfect, my grandmother (identified as the third from the right, in the top row), grew up only a few doors down from the school, on Lowell’s Lawrence Street.
It was perfect, until I researched it – and tried to verify the description on the back of the photograph. There was a problem. The Colburn School, one of Lowell’s first and built in 1848, was certainly old enough to be my grandmother’s childhood school. But . . . it was made of brick, as seen below. My photograph clearly shows light-colored wooden siding covering the school’s exterior.
And so the mystery endures. Among the followers of this blog, I know there are a lot of experts in Lowell history. Does anyone have any ideas on when and where (in Lowell) this photograph may have been taken? There is a chance that it’s much older than the 1910-1912 date I had originally assigned to it.
Only Half of the Story
Among the treasured stories in one’s family tree research are the tales explaining how your ancestors met – those sometimes chance encounters that seem to drive destiny – or at least the existence of entire families today. As my family’s story goes, my maternal grandmother met my grandfather while she was performing in a Portuguese musical group, based in Lowell, Massachusetts. As rumor had it, she was on the rebound from a bad break-up and my grandfather happened to be in the right place, at the right time. Someone helpfully circled my grandmother’s head on the photograph I have to prove the story, included below:
The group, which may have had ties to Lowell’s St. Anthony’s Church, remains nameless in my records – which has thwarted my attempts to learn more about them and their members. Is there anyone out there who has heard of any Portuguese musical groups, based on Lowell, Massachusetts, from the late 1920’s?
Photographs are windows into the past. But, the details of the past become fuzzy with time, and often are lost as those who remember them leave us. Even without knowing the full story behind old group photos, they make for interesting browsing – showing life as it was in those days now reflected in our family trees. And, with a little bit of luck, sometimes, you can add some insight into your ancestors’ lives by learning about the groups they belonged to, and the friends and associations that they had.
Readers, do you have any old group photos that have added insight, or mysteries, to your family trees?