Monday, December 18, 2017

The Problem with Predictable Projects

One of the most fascinating parts about researching these orphaned photographs I find in antique shops is that, though the pictures are practically picked at random, they are most certain to deliver the unexpected twists and turns that I've learned are just part of life. I've become quite convinced that even the most boring people have at least something about their life story which is unexpected, and thus interesting. And that is a good thing; a predictable project would turn out to be a boring one.

We've certainly experienced that when I picked up that 1936 photo album in a northern California shop; far from being a collection assembled by a long-gone local resident, the album ended up belonging to a family nearly halfway around the world. I certainly didn't expect that outcome.

The photo I found of John Blain was one I purchased in that same shop at the same time. Because the photographer's imprint indicated a studio halfway across the country from me, I assumed we'd witness the same pattern, discovering a life story which unfolded far from the location of that Lodi antique store.

Partially, that assumption proved true; John Blain may never have stepped foot in California, as we learned his last days were spent at home in Centerville, Kansas, after being injured while changing trains in nearby Paola. The last place we see him turns out to be the same city where we first "found" him: the tiny city of Walnut in Kansas, where he was buried in 1908.

That, however, doesn't explain how his photograph ended up in California. To find the answer to that involves researching the rest of story after his passing. Fortunately, though it requires a bit of skill in reading between the lines, we can figure out a plausible explanation through the use of easily accessible documentation. It's just that, seeing the photo end up in the very city in which I live makes this story seem quite predictable, after all. You'll see why, when you learn what I found simply by following the census trail for widow Harriet Blain and her daughters.

As you can imagine, John's wife must have had a rough go of it after John's untimely death at the age of forty four. That one episode instantly transformed Harriet, at the age of forty herself, into a position of being sole provider for her four young daughters.

For one thing, following the tragic death, Harriet decided to pursue whatever legal recourse was available to her, presumably with the hope of securing some means of support for her family in John's absence. That hoped-for remedy, however, was not to materialize, though it was a process tied up in the court system until eight years after John's death.

Meanwhile, by the time of the 1910 census, Harriet had moved from the family home in Centerville to a different house in a different town—not quite to California, yet, of course, but a move, nonetheless. As far north as Centerville was from the original Blain home in Walnut, Kansas, Harriet's new home was to the west of Walnut. Her new residence in Fredonia, however, was listed as owned free and clear; somehow, she was able to obtain the place without a mortgage.

Not that there weren't financial difficulties ahead for the young widow. Like many women in her situation during that time period, Harriet apparently eased the financial squeeze by taking in boarders. We can see two of them listed in that 1910 census—Benjamin Johnson, an immigrant from England, and George VanCamp, originally from the state of New York. Both were employees of a nearby glass factory.

It is with the next federal census that you can see what I mean by a predictable project: unlike the photo album I found, which ended up originating with a family from Ireland, the photo I found of John Blain may have made its journey from somewhere much closer than Kansas. It was a distance close enough to be a drive I make on a regular basis: a trip between the antique shop's location in Lodi to the nearby city of Stockton, California.

What makes me think the photo may have come from Stockton? My clue comes from the 1920 census, in which Harriet was no longer listed as a resident in the state of Kansas, but owner—with mortgage this time, incidentally—of a home in California. There she was, at 1436 South San Joaquin Street, fourteen blocks south of Main Street in downtown Stockton. With her were her four daughter: Emma, Rozella, Vida and Vera.

To make ends meet, Harriet was listed as a "practical" nurse employed in a private home, and oldest daughter Emma was a long distance operator for the phone company. The other three girls, all teenagers, were still students in school.

Discovering that Harriet had actually come to Stockton, herself, makes it easy to see how the photo would end up in an antique store so close by. Harriet likely kept that picture close, as a sentimental reminder of her deceased husband. She likely showed it to her daughters in hopes of keeping John's memory alive in his children's minds. Perhaps one of them inherited it after Harriet's passing and, eventually, left it in her own estate. A quite predictable outcome.

There was one puzzling detail about that 1920 census entry, though—well, besides whatever prompted Harriet to move her family from Kansas to California, and then to, of all places, Stockton. That puzzle can be found in one single letter entry on her line in that 1920 enumeration. While Harriet had been listed as a widow in the 1910 census, of course, by the time of the 1920 census, there was a big, bold "D" entered in the slot for marital status.

What had happened in the ten years between those two census enumerations? Even "predictable" can turn out to throw some curves into the story line.

Above: Photograph of John Blain, taken in the 1880s in the small town of Walnut, Kansas; found in an antique shop in Lodi, California.

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