Stranger than fiction

The Whitaker family in 1930.

Is truth really stranger than fiction? I’ll let you be the judge. Out of the blue, I received a lengthy message this summer from a woman in Phoenix, through Here’s an abridged version:

“Hello. Based on your family tree, I have a photo album that might be of interest to you. It was rescued from a dumpster, and I’ve had it in excess of 25 years without doing anything with it. My genealogy group has a show-and-tell meeting coming up on July 11, and as I’ve been a member for so long, I couldn’t think of anything I haven’t already shown. Then I thought of this album, and thought maybe I could finally do something with it, so have been researching names in it.

“There are about 42 pages with photos, 95% of which have everyone’s names on the back. There are several photos of groups of people at family gatherings. These are mostly Abe Whitaker[1] [my great-great-grandfather, whose likeness I had never seen!] and his daughters Josie[2] and Mertie.[3] I would like to know if this is something you would want. Please let me know if you get this message even if you are not interested.”

With my Whitaker great-grandparents.

Well, what do you think I wrote back? Of course I wanted it! She sent it off right after her group’s show-and-tell, where it was a huge hit. (By the way, doesn’t a genealogy group sound like such a fun thing? I’d never heard of one before.) The album even arrived in time for me to take it to an impromptu family reunion in San Francisco, which included one cousin who lives in Hawaii, and her sister and brother-in-law who live in Hong Kong. While everyone enjoyed it, my aunt really loved seeing pictures of her grandparents[4] and other relatives she remembered from her youth.

But then I realized there was someone who would love these pictures even more than me and my aunt: a second cousin-once-removed with whom I’d corresponded briefly after we got a DNA match. Several of the pictures were of Don’s older brother and sisters, parents, grandparents, and other folks he would remember well.

So I sent him a message asking if he would like scans of the pictures, and got a reply the same day. “Thank you for info on the pictures. Yes, I would like copies. I am in Junction City, Oregon, right now [an hour from my home!] having work done on my motorhome. Are you in Salem? It would be nice to get together.”

Cousin Don and his family, August 2017.

A couple of days later I had lunch with him and his wife … and their son and daughter-in-law, who were camping in the town immediately north of Salem, waiting to view the solar eclipse later in the month!!! Both generations are retired from jobs in Southern California, and both live in their motor homes touring the country. They could have been anywhere, but for different reasons were right near me at the same time, so that we could all enjoy the album together.

So now, if you read this in a book, you wouldn’t believe half of it, would you? But it’s true!


[1] Abraham Whitaker (1848–1934); he was born in Clermont County, Ohio, and moved to Los Angeles with his wife and children around 1890.

[2] Josie (Whitaker) Shaw (1874–1956)

[3] Mertie (Whitaker) West (1875–1972)

[4] Forrest Marion Whitaker (1877–1972) and Agnes Genevieve Hawley (1878–1967); they were both educators and had one daughter.

About Pamela Athearn Filbert

Pamela Athearn Filbert was born in Berkeley, California, but considers herself a “native Oregonian born in exile,” since her maternal great-great-grandparents arrived via the Oregon Trail, and she herself moved to Oregon well before her second birthday. She met her husband (an actual native Oregonian whose parents lived two blocks from hers in Berkeley) in London, England. She holds a B.A. from the University of Oregon, and has worked as a newsletter and book editor in New York City and Salem, Oregon; she was most recently the college and career program coordinator at her local high school.

25 thoughts on “Stranger than fiction

  1. Pamela – I know what your response as to the photos. It was the same as mine when I went to my grandfather’s former house to take pictures if allowed and the owner, after saying yes to the outside pictures, said that she had cleaned the attic two years previously and had found some pictures that she thought were of or concerning my grandfather and did I want them. Well, yes. One was a montage of the building, professors and graduates of the 1904 class at Harvard Medical School. Wow!

    1. This is a wonderful story. Every time I see old photo’s I always look for one of my many family ancestors Surname if high hopes of finding something like this. So thoughtful that even after a long time the person took time to look you up.

      1. Patricia – actually I had driven onto her property to ask if I could take outside pictures. She was the one who gets a huge thank you for keeping pictures that had nothing to do with her family on the hopes that someone would want them.

  2. This wonderful story reminds me of a time that could have been like this but wasn’t. My sister lived for a decade in the house our maternal grandparents had owned for 45 years before that. Once, when I was visiting from out of town and staying with my mother, my sister suggested we go through boxes of old pictures she’d found in the attics. I was thrilled, as I’d just begun doing family genealogy. We found a few that were labeled, or my mother or I could identify, out of hundreds. The others went in the trash, in spite of my vociferous objections. Most were from around 1880 to 1920, judging by the clothes. At the time we went through them, my mother still had cousins alive in Wisconsin and Minnesota, whom she exchanged Christmas cards with though she hadn’t seen them since they were kids. I would have been more than happy to do the work of scanning the pictures and and contacting her cousins. Wish I knew what I could have said that would have gotten me those pictures! But they’re gone now and so are the people. It still makes me sad.

  3. Oh, my! So many genealogy societies all around you and around the world and you’ve never joined one? Please visit a local group and enjoy both formal presentations and lots of chatting and exchanging information.

    1. I’m a member of this one (NEHGS)! I’m also a member of a small, recently-constituted lineage society for descendants of the early settlers of Cape Cod and the islands of Massachusetts. However, I truly had never heard of local equivalents meeting in people’s homes, etc., like writers’ groups or book groups. Always something new to learn in life!

      1. I’m a member of DDGS (Downstate Delaware Genealogical Society) even though my family is mostly from Mass (1635), New Hampshire, PA, and New York State. My husband’s family is from just over the line in Maryland, and my son-in-law’s mother’s side is in Delaware. While it will get me a little help in a few of the trees I’ve working on, mostly I joined for the speakers, and the networking to learn things to help jump start on my father’s side. Then I ended up, before the end of the first year, volunteering to edit the newsletter. So even if a genealogy group isn’t in an area where you ancestors lived, still go. It does help. At our last meeting. we had a book swap. The people bringing books went first, and those who didn’t have books to swap went last. The remainder of the books were put aside to a book sale.

  4. I LOVE this story! I’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of photos of family, primarily on my maternal side. But some second cousins have been generous in sharing with me and I recently found more photos at a first cousin’s home when I was there for a family reunion. I am trying to make sure that all of my known closer cousins have these photos too, so I’ve been getting prints and photo collages of some images to mail to them – as well as posting them at my online family tree.

  5. Loved this story as I have strange genealogy hobby. My friend likes to visit antique shops and I often spend time looking through the old photo/letter boxes. If there is a really nice photo and it has a name and location on it, I’ll buy it. I then spend some time tracking down the family and finding a descendant. Almost always the person is really happy to receive the lost treasure. Often my treasure will be an old wedding photo of great grandparents or a love letter from a couple who later married. Always fun to find the descendant.

    1. Linda – I have a story similar to yours. About 10-15 years ago, I bought two framed Victorian photos in an antique shop. I was primarily interested in the frames. Eventually, I opened the frames and discovered that each photo had a name penciled on the back. The photos were taken in Wales. Using the names of the couple, their location in Wales in the mid-19th century, and Ancestry, I located some descendants of the couple. I eventually mailed the photos and frames to the family in Australia. It was a very rewarding experience!

  6. Several times over the years I’ve had unusually involved dreams in which I come across exquisitely beautiful old genealogical books and hoary collections that contain brick-wall-shattering information — information that I’d say was beyond my wildest dreams if my dreams actually ever got any wilder than that. But, alas, I always wake up and grieve to learn I was only dreaming.

    Glad yours wasn’t just a dream!

  7. You mention not being familiar with genealogy groups. I assume that you mean a group that is outside the purview of regular formally organized genealogy societies etc..
    I have been organizing such a group for several years. I call it “Soup and Genes”. Every couple of months I put together two big pots of soup (allowing for a variety of diets) and invite friends who are interested in their family histories but who are not active genealogists to come over for the evening.
    I show them how to set up their research (charts, file organization, citing sources, etc) and how to find their families. I use their families as examples and there are always surprises that astonish and amaze people. We’ve even found people in the group who are directly related to each other but didn’t know it.
    This is my way of introducing more people to genealogy. When they find out how interesting it is they’re usually hooked and in addition to finding fun information about their families my friends get to know each other a little bit better.

    1. Yes, I knew about official genealogical societies, but it sounds like what you do is similar to what the lady who sent me the album does. Very fun!

  8. I have a cousin with an family album from another family and she is still trying to find someone who wants it. She came across one family member who wasn’t interested. One of these days I’m going to scan some of them and see if we can drum up some interest. It’s a beautiful album and includes names with the photos.

  9. Nothing quite so dramatic as this one, but I have received communications and a couple of treasures (including an amazing photo album with my Dad’s baby picture in it) as a result of having my tree up — and public — on I’m always a bit frustrated when the notice pops up that the tree I’d like a look at is “private.” I know there may be compelling reasons for privacy, and I know that often the trees are riddled with errors — but i now have seen my great-great-grandmother’s face (nothing like I expected) and the family groups of a number of great-great-aunts and cousins as a happy result of publicly viewable trees, mine and those of other people.

    1. I’m with you, Jane. Especially in this time when certain companies who should keep your most private information secret don’t, I feel that the potential benefits of making a great connection outweigh the risks…but then I’ve never had my identity stolen, and I also don’t have any secrets in my family tree that I’m trying to conceal!

      I made probably the best discovery that I ever shall during my two-week free trial of, thanks to a photograph of my great-grandfather that was posted on someone’s public tree. The connection enabled both me and the gentleman who posted it to break through a really important mutual brick wall. Without his publicly viewable information, we’d both still be in the dark!

  10. I’m hoping to get one of those miracles. About 20 years ago, I was in contact with my dad’s uncle out in Oregon, who said he had a box full of pictures and other records of my dad’s great-grandmother who moved west from North Dakota. This great uncle said he’d send them to me, and I spoke with him a couple of times to remind him. He died some years later, and I’ve been in touch with his kids. If I remember right, they said they didn’t have them but it’s probably time to check in with them again.

  11. I recently sent the original post Civil War photo of my great granduncle to a direct descendant. It was the only photo of that side of the family I had, I have an excellent copy of it on my tree, and had long intended to send it to a descendant of the uncle. So glad I finally found a direct descendant!

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