It was a simple little mistake.
A simple mistake that cost me hours of research. This one simple mistake was responsible for countless all-night online searches, numerous (unanswered) email queries, my superhuman bladder control, and quite possibly, permanent brain damage from multiple concussions sustained from repeatedly banging my head against the wall.
Like all simple mistakes, the aftermath of this one could’ve been avoided altogether had the proper precautions been taken at the right moment in time. In this case, had a name been written on the back of a single photograph, I wouldn’t be writing this right now.
Let me explain.
As a photographer, I’m a visual person. In my research, I want to see faces. I want to connect with the people in my stories on a different level, and seeing their faces allows me to do that. I’m lucky in that the maternal side of my family was relatively well-off and their lives were pretty well-documented. Images of most of them probably would have been made as early as 1839 when daguerreotypy first became commercially available. (I know for a fact that daguerreotypes were made of the Ekin family, I just do not know what became of them.) I’ve always prayed that these images have survived the test of time and they’re all just waiting for me to find them (in pristine condition, of course— oh to find an original daguerreotype of a family member! It’s my fantasy!).
In the 1950’s, my great grandmother (known in the family as Garma) began writing her memoirs, and completed several pages before her death in 1963. After she died, her things were packed away. Thirty years later, my mom and I found the pages in an envelope with her things. That was more than twenty years ago, and ever since I first read her words, I’ve wished that she’d finished her stories! I cherish her descriptions of her parents and grandparents, and I’ve used her words as the starting point for many of my own stories and research.
But there’s always been one thing that has driven me insane, and I’ve spent countless hours trying to figure it out. Finally, with the help of Inside the Covers, an Amazon Marketplace book dealer in suburban Dallas, I corrected this simple mistake and put a face to a name. And finally—finally—one of my most confounding puzzles was solved.
In Garma’s memoirs, she wrote: “My mother’s father, the Reverend John Ekin D.D., was a minister in the United Presbyterian Church. As I look at the picture of his strong, kindly, intellectual face hanging above my desk as I write, I realize that from him come many of the kindly and loveable traits appearing in his descendants into the fourth generation, for the virtues of the fathers can thus descend to bless, as well as the sins to blight….”
The part that stuck with me was “…as I look at the picture of his strong, kindly, intellectual face, hanging above my desk as I write…” As far as I knew, everything from Garma’s room was packed into the boxes that I now have in my possession. Where was this photograph?
For years, I’ve searched for an image of him. I’ve wanted to see this kindly, intellectual face. I’ve asked several of Garma’s grandchildren (and their children) if they know what happened to it. It seemed to have vanished into thin air. I’ve wanted to see the face of the man that was so highly revered by so many people in so many churches across Kansas, and the father who was so adored by his daughters. But for more than twenty years, I’ve been unsuccessful.
Several years ago, my mom and a few of her cousins got together to talk about their family and share pictures and stories. While they were together, they visited my Great Aunt Ned, my mom’s mother’s sister, and showed her a pile of unlabeled pictures to see if she could identify anyone. In the background of another picture, Aunt Ned pointed to a photograph of a man, and said, “that’s my grandfather!” The image was of Henry Wallace Caldwell, my 2x great grandfather. He was a good looking man with cheerful, happy eyes, a big, bushy beard, and a voluminous, handlebar mustache. (You can read about him here—Henry’s daughter was Lulu, and you may remember, Lulu was a badass!)
So a few years later when my mom and I went through all the pictures in this box, we assumed that a different photograph of a man with happy eyes and a bushy beard was also Henry Wallace Caldwell. It was an honest mistake. I didn’t bother to compare the two images or use my education in historical photographic processes to determine the age of either object. I simply assumed it was the same guy and never thought about it again.
For the last few years, I’ve been putting together all my research so that I can write a book on my 2x great grandmother, Helen Ekin Starrett. Helen was Garma’s mother, and John Ekin’s daughter. (I can tell that you’re confused. Don’t worry. There’s a nifty little cartoon at the bottom that explains it all!) But it’s been killing me that I keep hitting brick walls when I look for images of John and Esther Ekin. So I keep banging my head against those brick walls, hoping that one day, something magical will happen.
Last week, I found a book online called 125 Years: 1859-1984, the First United Presbyterian Church, Topeka, Kansas. I messaged the seller via Amazon Marketplace, and asked if he would mind doing me a HUGE favor. I knew that Rev. John Ekin had been the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Topeka from 1866-1868. John Ekin died in 1869 and his wife, Esther, died in 1884. After Esther’s death, the First Presbyterian Church purchased the Ekin property and built the present sanctuary where the Ekins’ home once stood. In 1911, First Presbyterian commissioned Louis Comfort Tiffany in New York to design and install more than a dozen custom favrile glass windows for the church. Since First Presbyterian is home to so many priceless original Tiffany windows, and (from what I could ascertain) the church never suffered any destruction of its contents, I figured that their archives must be intact. (I’ve reached out to the church, but haven’t heard back.) Maybe this book might possibly have a photograph of some of their early pastors? So I asked the seller if he’d look inside and see if there was a photograph of Rev John Ekin. I told him that if there was a picture of him in the book, consider it sold!
The next day, I received a response from Robert, the owner of Inside the Covers. On page 14, he wrote, there was a portrait and a short bio of John Ekin. Immediately, I clicked over to Amazon Marketplace and bought it. For a total of $27.99, I was going to see Rev John Ekin! Then I saw the shipping dates. Expected arrival: May 2 through 17. It was Monday, April 25. I could NOT wait that long! So I messaged Robert and told him that I would have an aneurism if I had to wait until May 17th! Within a few hours, Robert responded that he’d shipped off my book—Priority Mail—and that I’d receive it within a day or two. (Robert is amazing, by the way. If he has any books you want, you should go buy them from Inside the Covers right now.)
Within 36 hours, my book arrived, and I could hardly make it to the house from the mailbox without my heart exploding.
After I tore into the box and quickly removed the bubble wrap with which Robert had so carefully wrapped the book, I immediately opened it to page 14. My heart stopped. I was looking into John Ekin’s eyes for the first time. Only, it wasn’t the first time. I’ve had this photograph all along, but I’ve had an original print. Garma’s original print.
The picture Aunt Ned identified had as her grandfather was, in fact, her grandfather. But the photograph of the other guy with the bushy beard and sparkly eyes—the guy with the bushy beard without the handlebar mustache—was John Ekin. In our haste, my mom and I had identified the picture of John Ekin as Henry Wallace Caldwell—two men from different sides of my mother’s family. One had a mustache, the other didn’t. We had quickly assumed that the two bushy bearded men were the same guy when, in fact, they were two totally different men from two different branches of my mom’s family from two different generations. And, upon further inspection, they really didn’t even look like the same person. Even worse, I have a BA in Photocommunications from St Edward’s University. I studied the history of photography, and I know the difference between various types of historical photographic processes. I should’ve thought about the images as historical objects— as artifacts. The 8×10 albumen portrait of John Ekin is significantly older than Henry Wallace Caldwell’s 3×4 carte de visite. Historically, they’re nothing alike, and putting a date on an image like this isn’t too terribly hard if you know your basic photo history. I just never took the time to compare and/or scrutinize the images. I never put them side by side. It never even occurred to me to do so.
Now, I’m doing my best to laugh at the fact that I’ve had the very thing I’ve been searching for right under my nose the whole time. I’m also hoping that I haven’t made any other mistakes in identification like this in my collection of family artifacts. With this discovery, I’m optimistic that I’ll find other treasures out there—maybe even the Ekin daguerreotypes. And I hope that by sharing the story, it’ll force others to take a second look at their family “stuff” just to make sure everyone is labeled correctly!
So, this brings me to some very important points I want to stress to my fellow genealogical researchers and other “keepers of their family’s stuff.” Don’t ever make assumptions. Don’t be too quick to jump to conclusions. Don’t write something down or put factoids in a pile or a file until you’ve checked and double checked. Don’t believe something just because it’s written on a picture or someone told you or your found it online. Think critically. Double check. Triple check. Solve puzzles and figure out mysteries. Cross reference. Don’t give up. Don’t be disappointed because you found an answer you didn’t expect or want to find. If you look under enough rocks and creatively think outside the box, the answers may show up where you least expect them. Once the pieces fit, the payoff can be huge, and all the research can be worth the effort.
Now I can resume my research of the Ekin and Starrett families with another face to match another name. And I can start tackling my next major puzzle—locating a photograph of my Everest: John Ekin’s wife, my 3x great grandmother, Esther Fell Lee Ekin.
If you know anything about Esther Fell Lee Ekin (1813-1883) please contact me! I have quite a bit of information already, but there are a lot of mysteries about her. The unanswered/ignored email queries are starting to depress me. Stay tuned for for more about Esther. She’s quite a mystery!
© Julie Dirkes Phelps; Photographer, Author, Researcher, Archivist, and Storyteller. © Copyright 2016. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, reposting, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without prior written permission. Be cool, don’t plagiarize. If you want to use something, just ask me. I try to make sure to attribute all images to the appropriate sources, but sometimes I get mixed up or inadvertently leave something out. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any corrections or concerns. Thanks.