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Don't give up on old photographs

Studying old photographs for genealogical information can be frustrating, particularly when the pictures don't have labels or notes on the back. And worse, there's almost no one left who can answer questions for me. That's a problem with beginning family tree work late in life.

But even if there is an identifying label, there are still mysteries.

Another mystery photograph
I had puzzled over a series of small pictures of my father, my mother, and several other Virgil Stephens standing on streetpeople standing on an urban street. See, I know who it is because this one is labeled. I also recognize my father. Why didn't someone label the ones I don't recognize?

The mystery is the location. Because we all spent most of our lives in Atlanta, I tried to see a landmark that I could recognize. No luck!

After decades (really!) of studying these pictures, I made a breakthrough and solved the mystery. These related Web pages tell the story.





















My father at the Okay Cafe (part 1)

My father is Virgil Hughie Stephens (April 30, 1910–August 3, 1977), born and raised in Atlanta. For most of his life, he sold insurance for the Life Insurance Company of Virginia. That was back in the days when insurance men went from door to door to collect the monthly premium.

He was also interested in the restaurant business, and when he was younger, he owned two restaurants. They were not successful.

What's the story on this picture?
In this picture, much enlarged from a very small print, my father and mother (Virgil and Sallie) look very young. She's wearing a corsage, hat, and nice dress. He's wearing a suit with a tie. It looks like a special occasion, but it could just as well be a Sunday afternoon. People dressed better back then.

Virgil and Sally Stephens on street in Concord, North Carolina

I've always lived in Atlanta and I know the streets and the buildings quite well. But I couldn't recognize anything here. From the look of things, the picture was taken in the 1930s.

My sister, Carolyn, was born in 1939. I was born in 1944. Carolyn is not in this or any of the other related pictures. Was this before she was born?

Maybe they left her in a hot car with the windows rolled up. That would explain a lot.

Looking for clues
When studying old pictures, you need to be a detective. My skills as an investigator didn't exist before the age of computers and the Internet. Now, if I have access to the Web, I feel like the world's greatest sleuth. And I'm modest.

There are several clues in this and other pictures from the series:

An amazing bit of luck
The streetlights intrigued me. I didn't recall seeing anything like that in Atlanta, so I broadened my search. The only other place I could think of was Concord, North Carolina, where my sister was born. But I had no idea why my parents were there. And like most kids, I was so interested in myself that I had never asked.

On the Internet, I found a vintage picture of a Concord street taken during World War 2. How's that for good luck?

Notice anything interesting? Look closely at the right side. The streetlight has four globes! When I find clues like this, I almost can't believe it.

Concord, North Carolina street during World War 2 convoy

I knew my parents had spent some time in Concord, and were there in 1939 when my sister was born. Based on this street scene, I was now fairly confident that the mystery photos were made in that city.

The next step was to find out why they were there in the 1930s.


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Last update: April 7, 2014