Reuniting family photos, no strings attached

Reuniting family photos, no strings attached

Erin Bohannon knows the value and meaning of family history that has been lost to time. Now, she is working Facebook to get forgotten family photos back into the hands of family members who can appreciate them.

BRATTLEBORO — It started with a post in the Brattleboro, Vermont Facebook group by Greenfield, Mass. resident Erin Bohannon, who attached scans of portraits of local people and said that she was looking to return them to families.

If you've lived in the area for a bit, the names on the 5{x}7 black-and-white photographs would be familiar: Barb Covey, Marion Gassett, Tucky Houghton, Stuart Anderson, Eugene Lane, and many more.

Bohannon didn't ask for money, and she was willing to pay the postage to give photos back to family members.

Those responding to the post were skeptical. What was the catch, they asked.

There wasn't one.

“Happens all the time,” says Bohannon. “Even the people at the post office wondered why I was always there with envelopes to mail all over the country.”

The value of a family photo

Bohannon, a lifelong resident of Massachusetts, hasn't had an easy life.

“I grew up with a single mom who had three kids. Money was tight. We had no telephone, no school pictures,” she says. “My father left when I was 4, and he left without giving my mother any money. They divorced shortly after.”

One of six children, one of whom died in infancy, Bohannon's mother also grew up very poor and was one of six children born to her grandmother. Bohannon says her grandparents were abusive to her mother.

“My mother got pregnant at 17 with my older sister, left her family, and rarely went back,” remembers Bohannon. “Her sister - my aunt - left the family in 1953, and my mother left in 1965. Her brother Roger, was placed in Wrentham State School, a school for the mentally challenged.”

“After my mother left, there were three remaining children who were taken away by social services, and my mother never saw them again,” she continues. “My grandfather was told he could no longer live in the house.”

Her mother didn't communicate much with her own family, but Bohannon remembers visiting her grandparents a couple of times during her childhood.

And then, in 2013, Bohannon's mother was diagnosed with cancer.

“Mom grew up all these years, never knowing what happened to her siblings,” she says. “I wanted to find her family members for her before she died. It was all I could think of to do for her to bring her some comfort.”

Bohannon began digging around the internet, trying to find information about her mother's family.

“Before Mom went into the hospital, I found out her mother and her father - my grandparents - had died,” she says. “We went out on a little field trip and found her father's grave. We didn't know where her mother was buried.”

Eventually, Bohannon discovered that her grandmother had been cremated and had been buried with her parents.

“That brought her some comfort,” she says.

Her mother grew increasingly ill and finally went into the hospital. Bohannon kept on searching the internet. Her skills were becoming more advanced.

Right before her mother died, Bohannon tracked down her uncle Roger, through a newspaper article. Eventually, that lead allowed her and her family to track him down.

“Within minutes of the confirmation that I'd found her brother Roger, the home sent me a current picture of him. I showed it to my mother, and she was so happy, she was bawling her eyes out,” Bohannon said. She describes that photo as “a final gift.”

“She died a few days later and never got to hear her brother's voice,” she says.

'In honor of the photos I'll never see'

Bohannon's mother had always told her daughter that there was a large cedar chest that had belonged to her great-grandmother. It was full of family photos and a diamond wedding ring. Bohannon tried to locate the chest and discovered that it had disappeared long ago.

“I always wished I could have looked through those photos and learned more about my own family history,” she said.

About four years ago, Bohannon began to locate old photos and reunite them with their families, a hobby - or maybe a calling - that she engages in under the name Erin's Cedar Chest, “in honor of the photos I'll never see.”

“I'll likely never find my own family photos, so I spend my free time providing them for others,” she says. “I cannot tell you the joy it brings.”

“I get to hear so many interesting family stories!” she says. “That's my reward.”

Bohannon has been given negatives that people find; she scans glass plates of photos from the 1800s and complete photo albums, all of which she posts on her site.

To date, she has reunited about 700 photos, wedding and baptism announcements, and artifacts to family members.

Fifty photos for $5

The Brattleboro photos, she says, came from an estate auction at BK Auctions on Old Ferry Road.

The photos have inscriptions addressed to “Bob,” believed to be Robert “Bob” Bolster of Dummerston, who for many years was the owner of Bolster's Warehouse in the Estey Organ complex on Birge Street in Brattleboro.

“All the people in the photos were born between 1930 and 1938,” Bohannon says. “Many of them are high school graduation pictures.”

Bolster died in 2007, and it is unclear, even from some of his relatives, exactly how the trove of photos ended up as a lot in an auction.

“No one else bid on them, and I got about 50 pictures for $5,” Bohannon says.

The Brattleboro Facebook group came through for her with the challenge, according to Bohannon.

Whatever the source of the unidentified photos, Bohannon's reaction is consistent and simple.

“I see a photo, and I know how much they would mean to me, so my goal is to get photos back to people who will appreciate them,” she says.

In a Greenfield bookstore, Bohannon found a photo of a couple - their engagement photo from the early 1980s. She bought it and brought it home.

Within three minutes, she identified and had telephoned the subjects of the photo.

“They're still together and were celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary and they were so happy to have it back!” she recalled.

Another time, a son had been cleaning out his mother's home when she died and an important box of family photos belonging to his father was set aside. Somehow during the cleanup process the box disappeared.

Bohannon, who had bought the box at auction, appeared with the photos and returned them to the son, who was thrilled to have them back.

At another auction, Bohannan purchased a glass paperweight inscribed with the names of a couple who married in 1897.

William Warren, the groom, was a glass blower by profession. The paperweight was his wedding present to his bride.

Bohannan went to work.

“I discovered that they never had any children, but I did manage to find one of their living decedents,” she says. “She was ecstatic to have the paperweight back in the family.”

“It's especially nice to have an artifact that people can touch and hold and know that these family members touched and held it as well,” Bohannon says.

“It would mean so much to me if I could do that with an object from my own family,” she observes. “It was such a pleasure to bring happiness to that family and get them a piece of their history back.”

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