Wednesday, August 20, 2014
The Story Behind a Family Photo
One of the treasures I picked up at the Wallace family reunion last month was a print of the photograph that accompanies this post. It’s a picture of my father (standing, second from right) and his brothers and sisters (with the exception of Uncle Tom, who had died earlier) gathered together for the first time in almost 40 years. The occasion was the funeral of their mother in the spring of 1961.
There’s a story here, and a few observations as well.
My father was one of 10 children born to William Sumner Wallace and Mary (DeArmond) Wallace of Blount County, Tennessee, just south of Knoxville. It was a large family, but not uncommonly so by the standards of their time. William’s father, Theophilus Wallace, had been an officer in the Union army during the Civil War, and John DeArmond, Mary’s father, was one of the soldiers who served under him. William was born in 1869, and Mary in 1876. They married in 1895.
A Large Family Scatters
They settled on a farm outside Maryville TN and raised their 10 children there. The children were born over a period of 20 years, and seven of them stayed in the area as adults. The oldest, Hugh, (standing, far left) moved to California shortly after World War I and raised chickens in Orange County. My father followed him to California in 1929, and a third son, Roy, (seated, far right) moved to Florida.
William Sumner Wallace died broke in 1937, when the country was still in the Great Depression. My father and Uncle Hugh had enough money between them to pay for one train ticket, so they pooled their funds and sent Hugh to the funeral. My father wouldn’t make it back to Tennessee for another 24 years — when his mother died at the age of 85.
Living today, when air travel is easy and relatively affordable, we forget what it was like back then. When family members moved from one part of the country to another, there was a real chance they might not see each other again. So when all of William and Mary’s surviving children got together again for the funeral, it was a big deal. And they did what people used to do back then, when something happened that was a big deal. They hired a professional photographer to document it.
Too Important for Amateurs
That was hardly an extravagance. Sure, they could have gotten someone with a Kodak Brownie to snap a few shots, but it would have been a few days before the prints came back from the drugstore, and if anything went wrong, everyone would have been scattered. And no amateur would have been able to arrange the people so well and get them all to look good at the same time. Whatever it cost (and it probably wasn’t much), it was worth the money.
The name of the photographer isn’t on my print, so I don’t know who it was. I’m pretty sure it was a man and that he used a large camera on a tripod, probably producing a negative of 4x5 inches or 8x10 inches. He probably knew his business well enough that he didn’t have to take more than one or two shots to get it right.
All the people in the photo are gone now, and those gathered for the family reunion last month were largely their children, most of whom are collecting Social Security or getting close to it. And because a half-century ago, our parents went to the trouble and expense to get a photo that would endure, we have a priceless image of all of them in their prime.
THE WALLACE CHILDREN, with order of birth following name: Standing, from left, Hugh (#1), Margaret (#10), Helen (#3), Clarence (#7), and Clyde (#4). Seated, from left: Mary Lois (#9), John (#6), Grace (#8), and Roy (#5).