Monday, September 10, 2018
Welcome to West Point . . . Nebraska
It isn't often that I run across a photographer's imprint from a place so tiny, I have to resort to googling its location. After all, the pictures ending up in antique stores in the northern California foothills region once known for its gold fever may come from all over, but they generally come from locations I recognize.
At first, the picture we'll be examining this week seemed like it would be a snap to return to family. After all, it came with a handwritten note which included a first name and a surname. Even better, it included the photographer's imprint.
That imprint, in my opinion, was next to illegible, so swoopy and swervy was the script used for the studio's name. Normally, that wouldn't be a problem, since researchers have access to hundred-year-old city directories and even histories of local studios in that bygone era of photography. But this? I couldn't clearly make out the name—and it was of an enterprise in the thriving metropolis of West Point, a place whose city directories, if even in existence from that time period, might not be accessible to a researcher in far away California.
While you may easily recognize the name West Point, I suspect the number of people who know that location will be dramatically reduced when I include the qualifier that it must be the place known as West Point in Nebraska. This West Point, as it turns out, is a city—yes, officially a city—of barely over three thousand people. And West Point is the county seat for Cuming County, which in its own right only claims a total of nine thousand people.
To be fair, that is the county population as it stands today. Back at the turn of the century—yes, that other century of the type producing photographs I usually rescue—Cumings County hit its peak population of over fourteen thousand people. To give you an idea of how sparse Nebraska population was at the time, shortly after the county population had a second surge—to almost as much as that peak 1900 population of 14,584—the state devised a way in 1922 to code vehicle license plates by the number of vehicles eligible to be licensed; Cumings got assigned the number 24, meaning it came in 24th in number of vehicles registered in the state. Even in Nebraska, West Point was small change.
We're talking a not-big-hometown here, as you can imagine. So how hard would it be to find our not-so-mysterious man in the photo? It just depends on how common this subject's very German name was in a place claiming—even now—almost seventy percent of the population's ethnic heritage as German. And how accessible hundred-year-old records from a city of only—at the time—two thousand people might be for a researcher today.
As it is turning out, perhaps not as easy as it seems.
Above: Imprint, greatly enlarged, from the photography studio located in West Point, Nebraska, where the picture rescued from a Sonora, California, antique shop may have been taken in the early part of the 1900s. Koupab?Koupal?